Ask an Expert: How Do We Align the Family to Support Us and Mom?


Ask an Expert: How Do We Align the Family to Support Us and Mom?


(Editor’s Note: As you know, we celebrated the 17th birthday of last month. In looking back at how the website has changed over the years, I uncovered many past Ask Denise columns. I’ll re-run these columns regularly as I think you’ll enjoy them. This column originally appeared on on April 24, 2000.)

meetingDear Denise,

Two years ago my mother-in-law moved in with my wife and me. She is 74-years-old and frail; however, she tends for herself. In the past 30 months she has had about ten incidences, three from strokes and the rest were diabetic episodes. She has bounced back from all these events with no permanent side effects. I know it's a matter of time. My wife has four other siblings but to this point she has been the principle caregiver for her mother. We gave up our privacy to provide her with a place to live and I want to find some resources to learn how to align the family to support us in Mom's current and future care needs as well as our needs for privacy and living our lives. Any suggestions?

--The Husband

Dear Husband,

Sounds like a family meeting is in order. Often, we think other family members understand our needs as family caregivers, but unless, we describe our exact needs, other family members may be clueless.

My suggestion would be to pinpoint what your greatest needs are now and what you anticipate those needs will be in, say, 18 months. Do the same for your mother-in-law; determine what her greatest needs are now and what they will be. For instance, maybe for you and your wife, your greatest current need is one night off and one weekday afternoon off during the week. For your mother-in-law, her greatest current need is transportation to the doctor's office. How can other members of the family help meet these needs? Be open to ideas and suggestions--no matter how "far-out" they may be--from everyone, including your mother-in-law. Help from other family members may be making phone calls to find out about community resources; pitching in financially so you can hire help; filling in for you so you can go out. Be sure to approach everyone involved (including your mother-in-law) as members of the same team, with the same goal. And, each member plays a critical and important role.

Then, schedule regular family meetings to touch base. What's working? What isn't? Be flexible and willing to change situations if they aren't working. If family meetings start to get out of control, giving way to lots of fights and bickering, then ask a third party (like a minister, rabbi or social worker) to mediate the meetings.

You may find some family members will resist your request for help. Try to find ways they can help in ways they are comfortable helping, ie., some may be more comfortable writing checks rather than spending time with your mother-in-law. If someone really resists your request for help, allow him or her to "bow out", even if you want to choke them. Forcing family members to help won't help; it will just create a more stressful and tense situation. However, don't give up on getting help--just continue to look outside of the family, to the church (or synagogue), the home health agency, the adult day center and other social service organizations.

My suggestions just touch the tip of the iceberg. Books are available, which I think you would find helpful. Search at for books about "Sharing the Care", working together (friends and family) to provide care to aging relatives.

You are very smart to take steps now to get the help you need. By asking for help and assistance now, you avoid future resentments when you're completely involved in hands-on care--and no one else helps.

Dear Denise,

Thank you for providing help to all of us caregivers. I am, according to your scale, in step 3 (The Entrenched Caregiver) wondering seriously if I am going to be able to make to the following ones. It is a long, cumbersome and above all, a very lonely trip the one that caregivers travel

I have been caring, somehow, for my elderly father who is in a nursing home, for over five years. It started with three more family members helping out. Now, I am basically the only one. It gets harder and harder. I am only 37-years-old and the youngest of my family. For the past three months, I have done nothing but visit him and work. It has begun to conflict with my personal interests. I can't go anywhere for long periods of time, my peace of mind has long been gone. I think I need some help. Although I regularly try to attend a local church, there is no help when it comes to this matter. I have nobody to help with visitations except for one sister who moved and comes on a once a month basis for about three hours or less to visit our father. After all these years, I don't know what else to do. No time nor energy is enough. I am tired. Any suggestions. Again, thanks for your help.

--The Youngest

Dear Youngest,

I wonder if you can give yourself a vacation from one, if not both, of your jobs: your "day" job or your caregiving job? It seems you've been working (even if your caregiving job is a labor of love) for a long time without a break! It's impossible to be there for someone else when you haven't taken the time to take care of yourself.

I would encourage you to let yourself off the hook during your vacation; you can't keep bad things from happening. Your job is to do the best you can on behalf of your dad. You, as one person, cannot do any more than that. And, during your week's vacation, if something does happen to your dad, it will not be your fault. You have done the best you can for him.

On your vacation, you don't have to go anywhere; just take some time to reflect on your situation. What can you change so that you have more time for yourself? If relatives won't help with visiting, can a volunteer from church or local senior center stop in to see your dad? When you are away from your dad, what do you worry about? Who can you discuss these worries with so that you can regain some of your peace of mind?

Does your employer have an Employee Assistance Program? If so, the program offers referrals to community services and counselors. A counselor may also be able to help you sort out these issues. If you employer doesn't have an EAP, then ask the church to refer you to a counselor.

Hang in there and enjoy your vacation.

(Do you have a question you’d like me to answer? Just send me an email. If you or your caree are in a crisis, please call a health care professional immediately for assistance. I only provide general insights about general situations. Always consult your own lawyer, financial planner, health care professional and other professional advisors for advice specific to your situation.)

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