The Caregiver’s Minefield: Tricky Relationships Makes for Even Trickier Caregiving

Mother’s Day is upon us, and as caregivers we often find ourselves on a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Some of you were lucky and have had mothers who made certain we knew we were loved and encouraged to follow our dreams. If you are now faced with the hard fact that “Mom isn’t herself any more,” the sadness, feelings of loss and sense of powerlessness can be too much to bear.

There’s a quote that goes “Everything I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my mother.” In my case, that’s true—she was a shining example of everything I didn’t want to be and I fought to become a happy and fulfilled individual despite all her efforts to create me in her own image. I know I’m not alone. There are many daughters and sons who go through life trying anything they can to please their mother.

When I became my mother’s long distance caregiver after my father lost his battle with cancer, I felt as if I’d entered a minefield.

Making her happy was out of the question, so I could just do my best—but how was I going to keep my sanity? My sister-in-law gave me a short and sweet lesson in how to deal with the situation: “Treat her like she’s a crazy person and just agree with everything she says.” I began using this technique and it worked. I quickly learned not to “take the bait.” She thrived on conflict and I wanted none of it; so if she started to give me her “poor me” act at breakfast, I’d just go along with it. Instead of engaging in constructive problem solving that would be thwarted, I’d reply, “Yes I know. It’s not fair. It’s too bad.” I just wanted to avoid arguments at any cost.

I was spending a week each month with her in Florida. She had COPD and was genuinely ill, but she’d been given two years to live and was still around eleven years later. My father had been a doting caregiver and their life together had become a game show—“Whose Sicker?” Who takes more pills? Who sees more doctors? What a horrible competition…

When my dad died, I felt my mother’s disbelief, and she had a “I guess he wasn’t faking” attitude.

But a week each month wasn’t good enough for her and she complained no end. I had to remind myself she was “a crazy person” and I didn’t take it personally. Of course it made me angry, but it no longer hurt. Once you know the lay of the land and the cast of characters and their foibles, you learn to deal with whatever comes up. After my father died, my brother and his family stopped visiting my mom. In all fairness, she was not any nicer to them than anyone else. If they were in Florida, they’d stop by for lunch once or twice.

People would ask me why my brother didn’t share the caregiving responsibilities with me and I’d explain that he would only complicate things and make it harder for me to manage her affairs. The only way he could help would be to call her more often. I taught him a trick—call her when you can only talk for five minutes max. Call from a taxi and tell her you’ve reached your destination and have to go. It worked, and the fact that my mom spoke to him more frequently than she had been accustomed to made her a bit less angry at the world.

She was so often in tears on the other end of the phone when we spoke– I asked her, “What could I do to help?”

The Caregiver's Minefield: Tricky Relationships Makes for Even Tricker CaregivingShe had an aide come in every day from nine to six; it’s not like she was alone. The one thing she said I could do to make her life better was to call her every day. Every single day. It seemed impossible, but I began doing it. Instead of long tear-filled conversations, we’d have a “Hi, how are you today”-“I’m okay, how are you?” two minute chat. A simple solution that made both of our lives easier. Ten years later, I will occasionally feel a jolt at eight p.m.—“Oh no! I forgot to call.”

It’s not news that very often the burden of caring for a parent falls on the daughter, but when there are two sons (and one daughter-in-law), one of them has to become primary caregiver. And, when one son is geographically closer, he (and his wife) are the logical choice. When the other son pays an occasional visit, the parent—almost invariably—is delighted by it. So the two brothers have “issues.”  The bickering is never-ending.

My friend in New York recently lost her mother in Florida. She was her father’s and then her mom’s long-distance caregiver for years, and at times would stay with them for as long as a month. The thing is, she has a brother who lives in Florida and never even checked in on mom—not even a phone call once a week. But now the brother and sister are going to court over the estate, so the rivalry outlives the parents.

I know a brother and sister who had a rotten relationship while their parents were alive.

When the time came, the daughter became the primary caregiver. She worked, had a family and cared for her folks, but was taken for granted by everyone involved. Her brother was there for their mom and dad occasionally, but it wasn’t until after both parents passed away that the siblings began getting along. It’s not unusual for parents to play one child against the other (though they may not realize it) and it’s very counterproductive.

And then there are so many of us with extended families. Mothers with second husbands and husbands with second wives and all the children and step-children that so often complicate life with anger and resentment. I’m always amazed to see how well some people successfully manage to wrangle extended families into a working circle of caregiving when called upon in a crisis.

Just remember that at The Caregiver Space we’re all about listening to and sharing stories so that you know that despite the fact that you may feel totally isolated, you’re not. You have a family of caregivers who can relate to what you’re going through and can learn from what you have to say.

Photo credit: Sasquatch I

Written by Adrienne Gruberg
Adrienne Gruberg is a former family caregiver and founder of The Caregiver Space. After six years of caring for her late husband and mother-in-law she conceived of an online support space all caregivers could come to. Adrienne holds a BFA from Boston University. She founded AYA Creative in 1982, an award winning graphic design, marketing and advertising company. Her design training has helped shape the website and her personal and professional experience continues to inform and influence the caregiver centric support experience she has created at The Caregiver Space.

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  1. I know that minefield. I finally started saying, because I didn’t want to agree, or approve of her behavior, that I’d end the visit if she kept doing that behavior. Seems to work. When we were growing up and they got a divorce, we only got one side of the story: hers. Now that I’ve lived with her 3 years as an adult, I see it differently and have re-connected with my father.


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