Helping a Hard-to-Help Relative

How to 'do' for a difficult loved one while protecting yourself from frustration and burnout

BY: Dr. Leonard Felder


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Avoid Power Struggles

Let your family member retain as much control and independence as he or she can handle. Too often, well-intentioned family caregivers rush in and take over for a relative who is aging, ailing, or disabled. But if you stop and consider how you would feel if someone prematurely took away your independence or control over your daily routines, you would probably feel resentful or rebellious against that person.

Instead, sit down with your family member and have a brainstorming session where you discuss:

  • "What are the things you want me to handle for you?"
  • "What are the things you absolutely want to keep doing for yourself without any interference from me?"
  • "What are the things for which you want a little assistance but you still want to make sure you're in charge?"

    Having a heart-to-heart talk like this can reduce or eliminate many of the power struggles and personality clashes that flare up in most family caregiving situations.

    Try to Share the Load
    The best caregivers are those who know their own limits and who are resourceful in asking for help from trained experts or in delegating tasks to others who can lighten your load to help you prevent burnout. For example, is there another relative who can take care of some of the tasks you don't enjoy, such as phone calls to insurance companies, filling out reimbursement paperwork, running errands to pick up prescriptions or medical records, or arranging for a visiting nurse or aide to give you the day off sometimes?

    It's normal to feel a little guilty or frustrated that you can't do every caregiving task exactly the way you want it done. But the more you respect your own limits and recognize that you have others to care for and a life of your own, the quicker you will learn that your role is to supervise a team of helpers rather than trying to do it all on your own and getting exhausted or short-tempered as a result.

    Connect With Your Relative's Soul
    Instead of dwelling on your family member's difficult personality or problem behaviors, take some quiet time each day or each week to notice and enjoy the precious soul or childlike vulnerability that often is hidden underneath the layers of this individual's personality and old habits.

    For instance, if during a hospital visit or home visit you can bring along a relaxing piece of music that your relative loves and that you can listen to together, you might achieve a soulful moment of connection and closeness with this frequently resistant person. Or if you can look into this troubled relative's eyes or notice the strength and character in his or her hands, those moments will probably be far more soul-satisfying than battling his or her difficult attitudes and behaviors.

    In over 20 years of counseling people on how to deal with difficult relatives, I've always been amazed at how, underneath the personality clashes and power struggles, there is so much love and desire for connection and acceptance. Being connected to an aging, ailing, or otherwise difficult relative can either be a chance to keep repeating our battles-or to find soulful moments of connection that make it all worthwhile.

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