How to Deal with Conflict When Caring for an Aging Family Member

One of the biggest sources for family stress is conflict, especially when we’re caring for an aging parent. How do you manage this extra stress when being a family caregiver? Begin with communication.

Jude Bijou, a licensed family therapist and author of Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life, has four rules for communicating efficiently that “pave the way towards finding a common ground on which you can begin to find a solution”:

  1. Stick to talking about yourself (no blaming)

  2. Stay specific and address one topic at a time

  3. Be kind, positive and look for good solutions and good efforts

  4. Talk less and listen at least half the time

You can use Bijou’s framework when dealing with some of these common family caregiver conflicts:

Conflict with an Unsupportive Family Member

It’s easy to judge or be mad at family members for not helping enough, but that doesn’t help. “Remember that most people want to help if you ask them for something they are capable of doing,” says Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, and author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One.

Reframe what you’re asking for to be more specific. “Think of tasks that are stressing you out — direct to caregiving or not. For example, are you stressed about taking Mom to the doctor, picking up the groceries and prescriptions, yard work, etc.? Maybe you personally need to take Mom to the doctor, but others could help by dealing with errands and raking your leaves.”

Be realistic about your family members and look for ways to allow others to help in the ways that best suit their strengths and personality.

Conflict with an Uncooperative Parent

It’s frustrating when your parent won’t do what you need them to. The impulse is to scold or explain, but Bijou says, “go for empathy. Your parent is doing the best they can under the circumstances. The best you can do is to try and understand them and what they are facing. It’s not productive to try to convince them that you know better than they do.”

Instead, try to engage your parents in a conversation about their deeper fears and concerns so you can understand their feelings and work toward a solution that suits both of you. And try our other tips for having sensitive discussions with your aging parents.

Conflict with a Healthcare Provider

Caring for an elderly parent inevitably involves frustrating interactions with the healthcare system. “Don’t tell others about themselves — what they did wrong or how they are at fault,” Bijou says. Instead, take a breath and start with a positive statement like "I appreciate how attentive and patient you are with my mother.” Next, ask clearly for what you need, whether it’s a clearer explanation of a procedure or condition, more reasonable scheduling, or some time to think.

Conflict with Yourself

Knowing how to deal with conflict is a crucial skill for caregivers. Follow this advice to develop your own skills at defusing skirmishes with yourself and others in your life so you feel better, perform better, and give your loved ones even better care.

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