Ask the Expert: Caregiving Within A Blended Family

by Kate Pomplun, LMSW, CMC

Question: My parents divorced when I was a teenager and my dad remarried while I was away at college. I have a good relationship with his wife and have spent some time with her adult children, but we aren’t close. His wife was recently diagnosed with dementia and the caregiving burden is already taking a toll on my dad. He wants to keep her home as long as possible, but I worry his health may suffer. How do I help both of them while not stepping on toes of others in our blended family? 

There continues to be a rise in blended families and remarriages in general, and remarriage occurs even more as people age. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center showed 50% of adults ages 65 and older had remarried. This is up from 34% in 1960. A number of factors contribute to this rise, but let’s discuss how this affects adult children and caregiving roles. 

Caregiver roles for both spouses and adult children are strenuous, even in the best family situations. When you throw in step siblings and second or third marriages, these stressors can be further exacerbated if there have been difficult or distant relationships in the past. Take heart, though; this does not mean blended families are doomed to fail when it comes to caring for their older parents. Much of the same advice for blood-related siblings also applies to blended-family situations. 

First, having a discussion with your dad about what his wife and he planned as far as long term care is crucial. This is true whether you are part of a blended family or not. The earlier you can do this, the better. If they haven’t fully discussed the topic or made plans, encourage them to do so as soon as possible. The more his wife can have a say in how she’d prefer (and not prefer) care, the more empowered she will feel and the less of a burden it can be for you, your siblings and step-siblings as far as opinions and decision making goes. 

Ask if they’d like you to coordinate a group discussion with all involved adult children so they can share their plans. Or, maybe they would prefer to write a letter together to all the children explaining their decisions. This allows each adult child to hear the same verbiage while allowing time to read and understand. No one can interrupt a conversation written in a letter. 

If your father and stepmother are struggling to make a plan, ask what would be most helpful to get started. You could facilitate a conversation among all the children about who might like to help and figure out how. For example, can someone make phone calls about local resources, such as support groups for both your dad and his wife? Perhaps one of you can research a caregiver agency, an Aging Life Care Professional™, a financial planner, or a facility admissions coordinator, etc. The information could be typed up and sent to your dad to save him time and energy. 

Later, as your dad’s wife’s needs change, who might be able and willing to spend some time at their location to help your dad navigate medical appointments, driving, hands on care, daily chores etc.? 

Chances are, each adult child wants what is best for both the parent and his/her spouse. Letting all adult children know that you want to facilitate things simply to make the process easier for both parents may help to prevent feelings that one person is trying to take over or take sides. Differences of opinion on how that should be implemented are likely to arise, but by utilizing open lines of communication, a team approach and respect, you can all make a successful impact on helping your parents navigate the caregiving journey. Your dad’s wife’s children may even feel relieved that you are willing to help. 

The Family Caregiver Alliance has even more tips about sibling and blended family caregiver roles. 

Visit their website at www.caregiver.org 

Kate Pomplun is the owner of Aging Care Solutions in Southern Pines and a contract care manager for Aging Outreach Services.
She may be reached at kate@agingcaresolutionsnc.com.