Besides the conflicts that can arise between siblings and stepfamily members, caregivers can also experience stress when interacting with extended relatives like in-laws, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. Throughout my work with family caregivers, I often hear complaints about a relative who questions a caregiver’s decisions or believes they are more capable to care for the ill-individual than the primary caregiver. In many of these cases, the extended relative is usually unaware of the extent of the caregiver’s role and simply needs a greater understanding of what the role looks like. In other cases, however, some family members may not believe what the caregiver relays about his/her responsibilities, are in denial or simply just difficult to deal with. If any of this sounds familiar, then consider trying the following techniques in order to reduce your level of stress when interacting with your extended family member.
If interacting directly with your family member is unavoidable, consider limiting your interactions by setting boundaries. As the primary caregiver, you more than likely have your hands full and don’t have time to “entertain” relatives who visit or answer their inquiries via phone. Setting a boundary can be done by saying something like, “Caring for mom requires a lot of my time, focus and energy. While I appreciate your visits and calls, it does throw off our schedule a bit. For the time being, if you wouldn't mind coming by only on Mondays or Wednesdays or limiting your calls to the mid-afternoon hours, I think that would make things easier for us to handle.” Whether you say this to one particular relative or to everyone in the family, it could ultimately help to reduce the stress of interacting with that one particular relative.
Appoint a “Gatekeeper”
For some, dealing with a particular family member can be anxiety-producing, exhausting or can get your “blood boiling.” Selecting a person who can talk directly with this relative to relay updates, maintain contact and essentially filter any negative feedback can help to reduce the anxiety, exhaustion and frustration you would experience otherwise. The key to choosing a “gatekeeper” is to pick someone who will keep the “drama” out of it and stick to the facts. This person could be a relative, a friend, a neighbor or even a hired professional. Regardless of who you choose, it should be someone who is reliable, dependable and level-headed. The last person you want is someone who has problems with your relative, who doesn't fully understand your situation or who does not know how to separate emotions from facts.
Sometimes taking the above approaches don’t work and the only thing left is to be upfront about what you are feeling and experiencing in your role as a caregiver. If a relative is calling too much, making too many recommendations or being too intrusive – let them know. Worst case scenario, you offend your relative and he/she ceases communication with you. Best case scenario, you reduce the amount of stress you are experiencing since your relative now understands your responsibilities and respects your stated wishes. While you may not want to be upfront for fear of creating family friction, you ultimately have to think about yourself and put your own emotional, physical and spiritual well-being first. “Saving face” is generally not worth risking your own sanity and health. Plus, as I often mention to caregivers, if you don't take care of yourself, then who will take care of you and your loved one?
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Christine M. Valentin
As a licensed clinical social worker, I help individuals caring for a loved one reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. This blog is meant to share with you, many of the suggestions I recommend to many family caregivers. Sign up to receive them directly.