When it’s just me and Dad, our time is pleasant, even in the midst of his mobility challenges and his chronic pain and hearing difficulties. We make the most of the obstacles: We try to find the positive spin on everything. We try to fit in some art and music every day to express our emotions, and we have an agreement between us that we’ll seek help when our communication breaks down.
When it’s more of the family together at once, a lot of our best intentions do break down. My brother and sister are coming over in the midst of a stressful work and family week, so they tend to be tired and reactive. They want to look at Dad’s health and his progress in a detached and analytical way, which always seems to leave Dad and me feeling under the microscope and criticized—even though we’re the ones here working hard every day. We both just can’t wait for the rest of the family to take off, so we can have that breathing room and forward momentum again.
But just getting out isn’t the answer to caregiving challenges posed by family dynamics. Clarissa, a family caregiver, told us this story, and it gives an example of some issues that can arise when one family member has the ability and the willingness to be a primary caregiver for the loved one in need. When consistent family caregiving is harder to implement, caregiver family members may experience sibling resentment, communication breakdown, and burnout among them.
Fortunately, there is a growing resource that will surely help many caregiving families to face family-system issues with grace and strength: caregiver family therapy benefits those who are willing to take the steps toward growth. Needless to say, beyond just helping the caregivers, family therapy paves the way for the best quality care for our aging and disabled loved ones.
How Therapy Approaches Caregiver Family Systems
Caregiving family situations all look different because family members are also navigating their own lives on top of the need for caregiving. It isn’t always the case that a single caregiver can assume full-time care, as Clarissa has been able to do. But, even when that is possible, a single family member can’t do it all alone. Caregivers need resources and respite, or they may hit a wall of caregiver burnout syndrome. In many caregiver cases, the most significant underused resource is family support and assistance.
Caregiver family therapy serves to bring to light deeper conflicts that run through the family system—while also considering the present needs of the family caregiving dynamics and joint care routines. A clinical study that promotes effective family-based therapy for caregivers of loved ones with dementia states, “Social and instrumental support from family members has been found to mediate caregiver outcomes such as feelings of depression or burden, yet many caregivers are isolated and estranged from family members and friends.”
The study determines that caregivers’ needs from family and friends are twofold: They benefit from assistance in their caregiving responsibilities—which can manifest as action-oriented and emotional support—and they also benefit from the recreation and social engagement that a support network can provide. Yet, the number of past conflicts and counterproductive dynamics within family systems can be incredibly deep and complex.
Support groups—online and in person—and individual therapy for caregivers can be integral resources to help a caregiver with strategic and emotional challenges. But they stop short of restoring healthy family dynamics or mobilizing family assistance for the caregiver who is struggling and for the aging loved one who deserves the best possible compassionate care. Caregiver family therapy, in contrast, approaches the needs of the whole family where they intersect and attempts to transform relationships in the direction of more productive support for family caregiving.
The Benefits of Caregiver Family Therapy
Family therapy intervention leads to benefits for not only the caregiver, and not only the aging adult in their care but also the rest of the family as interactions head in more conscious and productive directions. It is safe to assume that all family members involved desire the best possible caregiving outcome for their aging loved one. So, even amidst the conflicts and wounds that may arise, family therapy participants are connected by that shared goal.
Caregiver family therapy sessions may not be pleasant in and of themselves. In fact, painful memories and interactions are likely to arise. But the therapist can help to remind everyone of that shared goal that brings them together; they can reassure the family that these conflicts must come up in order to be transformed authentically. More often than not, the therapeutic focus will center on the family processes and interpersonal dynamics—rather than by questioning or analyzing the actual content brought up by these interactions.
The benefit of this systemic approach is that, beyond solving acute problems, therapy sessions are teaching family members how to better work together progressively and harmoniously. When difficult and sensitive challenges inevitably arise in the future, they will be better prepared to resolve those problems; and the caregiver and the loved one in their care will not have to feel the brunt of those shortcomings in the family system.
The overall intention of caregiver family therapy is to strengthen the alliances within families because—just as the negative consequences of family conflicts can snowball—the possibilities for a thriving family support network, and better health and happiness for everyone within it, tend to build exponentially.
Caregiver family therapy works best in conjunction with other supportive resources, programs, and services. To find out more about what can benefit you as a caregiver or as an aging adult, get in touch with Institute on Aging. Our community of dedicated partners is ready to meet you right where you are along your journey and to lend a compassionate hand.