Caregiving Challenges in Blended Families
A recent New York Times article highlighted specific challenges that blended families face when it comes to caregiving. For these families, communication is especially important because expectations are likely unclear for stepchildren. An already stressful situation can become even more tense when stepchildren and stepparents do not agree on the type of care needed, who will provide that care, or how much money to spend on it. We’ve seen this happen time and again when families aren’t on the same page regarding how to proceed with care. In the article, a clinical social worker asked, “Who’s going to take care of you if you become sick? Talk about that while you’re still healthy.” Blended family or not, it’s important to plan ahead so you can avoid conflict and resentment among the ones you love the most.
The text is below. The link to the NY Times article is here.
In Blended Families, Responsibility Blurs
By Paula Span
Every year, Fran McDowell waited for the summer week when she would sing in a choral festival in the North Carolina mountains, then spend a few days in a lakeside cabin with close women friends. That getaway grew more complicated to arrange — but perhaps more necessary — after her husband, Herb Beadle, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. They had a “gloriously happy” marriage — her first, his second — for 11 years, and she was more than willing to care for him in sickness as in health. But he could no longer manage alone in their Atlanta home. For a few years, other family members pitched in to allow Ms. McDowell her cherished vacation. Eventually, though, she had to ask her husband’s daughter, a medical professional in another state, to take him into her home for a week. She said no, then yes. Then, the day before Ms. McDowell was to drive him there, her stepdaughter again refused, leaving no time for alternate arrangements. If this had been her biological child, “I would have said, ‘Come on, don’t do this to me,’” Ms. McDowell said. Instead, reluctant to make waves, she canceled her trip.
“I think confrontation is riskier for stepparents,” she told me. “I was the compliant one who would bite my tongue rather than say what I thought.”
Ms. McDowell never told her stepdaughter, or anyone in the family, how angry and disappointed she was, or how difficult it was becoming to care for their father, who died three years ago at 86. She told the members of her dementia caregivers support group instead. It was that group’s leader, Moira Keller, who e-mailed me to suggest this topic. A clinical social worker with the Sixty Plus program at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, she wrote that “one of the biggest challenges I have is blended families in later life.” Though I’ve written about the way the 1970s’ spike in divorces could complicate caregiving for adult children — more households to sustain, more siblings to either help or hinder — I hadn’t considered the impact on the older people themselves. But Ms. Keller seems to be onto something. “The generation most likely to have stepchildren” — the boomers — “don’t need much care yet,” said Merril Silverstein, a Syracuse University sociologist co-editing a coming issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family on stepfamilies in later life. “The crunch will come in 10 or 20 years.”
Initially, many adult children whose divorced or widowed parents remarry seem delighted, Ms. Keller said when we spoke. “They’re thrilled that Mom or Dad isn’t alone,” she said. “It’s a wonderful thing — until somebody gets sick.” Then, she has found, “it gets really blurry. Who’s going to do what?” Grown children don’t have much history with these new spouses; they often feel less responsibility to intervene or help out, and stepparents may be unwilling to ask. Perhaps it’s unclear whether children or new spouses have decision-making authority. “Older couples in this situation fall through the cracks,” Ms. Keller said. Research shows that the ties which lead adult children to become caregivers — depending on how much contact they have with parents, how nearby they live, how obligated they feel — are weaker in stepchildren, Dr. Silverstein said. Money sometimes enters the equation too, Ms. Keller added, if biological children resent a parent’s spending their presumed inheritance on care for an ailing stepparent.
Adela Betsill, another of Ms. Keller’s support group members, married her longtime partner five years ago — her second marriage, his third. She has since given up her interior design business to care for Robert who, at 72, has also developed Alzheimer’s disease. His two children have had little involvement — perhaps because she’s just 49 and presumed able to handle everything. Thus, though Robert’s son works from an office in their home, if Ms. Betsill needed to go out and asked him to remind his father to eat lunch, “he might, or he might not,” she said. “I don’t think he realizes it’s a burden.” So she has not asked. Would it be different if she were his biological mother and he saw her wearing out under the strain? She thinks so, but it’s hard to know. After all, biological families also experience plenty of conflict and avoidance as elders age. Still, that sense of reciprocity we often hear from caregivers — she took care of me when I was young, so I need to help out now that she’s old — doesn’t apply in late-life stepfamilies. Ms. Betsill didn’t raise this man, or his half sister. Older couples who marry or remarry often discuss their finances, Ms. Keller has found. (An elder attorney, Craig Reaves, discussed the legal consequences here.) But illness and dependence may prove even more difficult subjects to broach.
“If I could yell one thing from a mountaintop,” Ms. Keller said, “it’s to talk about this stuff, too. Who’s going to take care of you if you become sick? Talk about that while you’re still healthy.”