Caring Currents

Stepfamily Issues Make Caregiving Even More Complicated

Last updated: Dec 05, 2008

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It's never easy to care for elderly relatives, but unresolved stepfamily issues can make caregiving even more difficult. It's a problem that will become increasingly common over the next few decades, as more divorced parents age and require care.

My friend, Lily, is currently experiencing a stepfamily tsunami. Almost 50 years ago, Lily's stepfather left his first wife and married her mother, and to this day, his two daughters blame Lily's mother for the break-up of their family. As Lily and her stepsisters grew up and built lives of their own, the members of this not-so-blended family kept their resentments to themselves, for the most part, and were superficially civil when they met at occasional family gatherings.

But now that Lily's mother and stepfather are growing increasingly infirm, all the unresolved resentments have come roaring to the surface. In the last few years, Lily's mother has developed an autoimmune disease and needs a wheelchair to get around. Lily's stepfather is her primary caregiver, and even though he's in generally good health, he's in his 80's, and caring for her mother is taking a physical and psychological toll. He's suffered recently from health complaints that his daughters believe were caused, or at least exacerbated by, the constant lifting and other physical demands of caring for Lily's mother. He's also depressed and overwhelmed by the endless caregiving tasks that now crowd his days, and his daughters blame Lily's mother for that, too.

Lily received a full-on blast of this resentment when she spent a recent weekend with her mother and stepfather. She dropped by her stepsister's house and was greeted with a long list of grievances, culminating with the charge, "Your mother is killing my father!"

Lily wants her mother and stepfather to hire a caregiver to give him regular breaks, but so far they've resisted; her stepfather doesn't want to spend the money, and her mother doesn't want a stranger in the house. Lily does what she can to help out, but her parents live six hours away, and she has two children and a busy professional life. She checks in frequently by telephone, and makes a point of calling her stepfather when she knows her mother is napping, to give him a chance to vent. "I know it does him good to have someone just listen," she says.

For now, Lily and her stepsisters are maintaining a fragile truce, which she expects to unravel as soon as there's another crisis. As difficult as she finds her stepsisters' behavior, Lily understands that it stems, at least in part, from their experience of her parents' marriage, which is very different from her own -- one of the many factors that makes stepfamily relationships so tricky. As Lily explains: "I'm close to my stepfather, he's been a real dad to me, so I don't think in terms of his well-being versus my mother's well-being -- I see them as a couple, and I'm trying to support them both. For my stepsisters, it's her versus him, a zero sum game, and it always has been." 

I checked in with clinical psychologist and expert, Jonathan Rosenfeld, to see if he had any advice. He pointed out that the demands of caregiving, like any other family crisis, can inflame unresolved resentments, but they  also present an opportunity for healing. In Lily's case, if she and her stepsisters can work together to help their parents, by convincing them to hire a caregiver, for example, this experience could open the door to an improved relationship. "If they can collaborate to solve a problem -- something they've probably never done before -- it will change their assumptions about each other and build trust."

If you're a caregiver with stepfamily issues, and/or advice on how to deal with them, we'd love to hear from you.

Image by Flickr user Gigapic used under the Creative Commons attribution license.