THE BLOG
01/25/2013 07:50 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

You Can't Choose Your Family, But...

Yesterday, I received a call from a lovely woman named May* living in Birmingham, Ala. May initially called my office to find out where our magazines were available near her home. However, we started to chat about being a family caregiver. And, after a few minutes, she asked if I would give her some advice.

Since my clever response of "no hablo ingles" didn't even get a faint response, I realized that her question could be rather serious. It was. May blurted out, "My mother and I never got along, how am I supposed to be there for her every day? I don't even like her."

Now May, that is a question!

First, I congratulate May for having the courage to ask such a brutally honest question. Trust me. Having communicated with thousands of family caregivers, there are many questions dealing with some aspect of this emotionally-draining issue. Let's face it. Not everyone was raised by Ozzie and Harriet (especially for those of you over 50 years old).

So how do you take care of someone you may love but who you just don't like? Dr. Robert Holden, Ph.D. has a wonderful saying, "You need to be honest before you're positive." I cannot think of a more appropriate place to start.

It's nonsense for anyone to tell you to just block out the past and make today a fresh start. It's baloney! And, unless you are a super-enlightened person with incredible control over your ego, I believe this advice is not too constructive. So let's take a look at several steps that May and I discussed. I believe they can help.

Let's call them "The 4 Ls":

Level

If you are feeling angst about your relationship with the loved one you're caring for, you are not alone. There is a good chance that they have similar feelings. Perhaps they're not on the same level, but there is an emotional distance between you.

These conditions, although uncomfortable, promote the opportunity to put your cards on the table and discuss what is bothering you. It's an effort to bridge the distance between you. Remember, be honest. If you're not, you'll be back in the same position next week!

Learn

Since life is not a one-way street, this is also the time to openly listen to the thoughts of your loved one. Our egos, especially when they have been bruised for a long time, can make accepting alternative viewpoints difficult... to say the least. But, if you are sincerely open, you may learn something that can help build a healthier conversation and relationship. By the way, this is also a great approach in dealing with everyone in general.

Let Go

While acceptance can be difficult, it can also be very liberating. Accepting the relationship, warts and all, is necessary if there is any chance of moving forward in a way that can make the time you spend together enriching. (OK, OK, how about we start with tolerable and try to evolve to enriching!) There are countless family caregivers, who after their experience as a caregiver have moved their relationship to a place they never knew possible.

Live

Yes, live! Under the best of circumstances, being a family caregiver presents some challenging times. No one is asking you to give up who you are for the sake of being the primary caregiver. But it is very important that you determine expectations as soon as possible to ensure resentment does not creep in (any more than normal). You need to talk with your loved one about each of your needs and foster respect for each other's circumstances. Don't feel you need to give up friendships and time for yourself.

Well, I really debated on bringing this up but... there is actually a fifth "L."

Leave

I wouldn't really be giving you the complete picture if I didn't mention that sometimes a relationship is in such a state that it just can't be worked out. There are times that people can't forget their differences -- not because they are stubborn, or selfish, or uncaring, but because there is just too broad a chasm to cross. When being together is this unmanageable, it can affect the health and well-being of both the family caregiver and the one in their care. This being the case, it may be that the best thing for everyone's sake is to find other resources to provide caregiving assistance in a way that ensures your family member experiences the best quality care possible.

As I said to May, working these situations out takes time, because emotional changes (on both sides) don't happen overnight. There's a Latin phrase that applies here. Tabula Rasa. It means "blank state." Instead of starting with a blank slate, let's be realistic -- start with a polka dot slate and over time work toward removing the not-so-pretty dots.

Thanks again May!

*May's name has been changed for her privacy

Help yourself. Help others.

For more by Victor Imbimbo, click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.

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