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Changing Family Roles When Coping with a Serious Illness

Maintaining strong family relationships when serious illness strikes a loved one.
Changing Family Roles When Coping with a Terminal Illness

A Redefinition of the Family Roles

People are forced to play altered roles when illness strikes. The caregiver takes on added responsibilities. The care receiver loses, or never gains, independence. 

Aging parents are forced to become children, dependent on their own offspring for the very services they used to provide. They need the care, but often resent it, while the adult child (children) may feel a growing resentment at having to become their parent’s parent, especially if they have their own children to care for. Spouses who entered into an equal relationship are forced to rethink the balance between dependence and independence.  

Parents who must give extra attention to a seriously ill child, often don't have enough energy left to give attention to each other. Feelings of guilt sometimes transform the caregiver into focusing even more on the child and less on the spouse, thereby adding to the tension.

Changing family roles can be challenging, but adjusting to an unwanted role is even more so.

Family relationships that were established with one set of definitions now must conform to a new set. But you can't synchronize everybody's time clock, and you can't control whether the new definitions are compatible.

Family Communication Through Pain

As with all relationships, the problems in families dealing with serious illness are often compounded because people don't easily talk about what's bothering them, especially when they perceive their feelings to be negative or socially unacceptable.

A social worker, counselor or therapist can help families see their feelings and their difficulties in a different light. They realize that in sharing their feelings they can begin to break down misconceptions and reach out towards each other in positive ways. The primary caregiver, the care receiver and other family members are in this together and by working through their problems together, they have a better chance of healing the rifts that the illness caused.

Making Things Better

Despite the difficulties, maintaining good family communication between caregivers and their loved ones is not an impossible task if you follow the advice of medical professionals:

  • Keep on talking and communicating.
  • Find creative ways to maintain normalcy.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Keep your sense of humor.
  • Make conscious decisions about the things you can change and let go of the things you cannot.
  • Put your loved one’s illness in its place and keep it from becoming the sole focus of your life.
  • Avoid pity. Hold your ill loved one accountable and responsible for their actions to the fullest extent possible.
  • Be patient.
  • Maintain your individuality and don’t own a disease that isn’t yours.
  • Realize that family relationships are always in flux and every problem you encounter is not caused by the disease.
  • Use a support group as a social outlet and network, not just as a place to talk about your problems.
  • Find something outside yourself to believe in.
  • Treat your loved one with respect and expect respect in return.
  • Begin to dream again.
  • By keeping these ideas in mind and working at your relationship, while recognizing its limitations, you might find strength, in spite of the illness.

SOURCE: Caregiveraction.org

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