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5 Ways Caregivers Can Improve Relationship Strain with the Person They Care For

By Julie Hayes | 03/19/2020

When we begin providing care for a loved one, our relationship with that person can take on a new meaning as our role in their life changes. Whether we are their spouse, child, sibling or friend, taking on the role of managing their care or helping them cope with a disease or condition comes with unique responsibilities and relational dynamics. In some cases, caring for a loved one may make our relationship with them stronger, but in others, the stresses of caregiving may lead to increased strain which in turn can negatively impact our relationship with a loved one.

If we are experiencing a strained relationship with a loved one due to caregiving, finding a solution which improves our emotional bond can often be important for both a loved one’s wellness and our own. Studies show that the quality of our relationship with a loved one we care for is one of the most important variables in the degree of the negative effects of burden we may experience as a caregiver, such as depression, poor physical health and high mental strain. A close relationship can also improve a loved one’s satisfaction with the care they receive, as well as their physical and mental wellness (Jeanne R. Snyder PhD (2000) Impact of Caregiver-Receiver Relationship Quality on Burden and Satisfaction, Journal of Women & Aging, 12:1-2, 147-167).

If we are experiencing relationship strain with a loved one, here are some tips that may help us repair our bond:

1. Take a break to refocus

Often, a lack of respite can lead caregivers to feel overburdened, exhausted and unhappy, and these negative emotions can spill over into our relationship with a loved one. Giving ourselves a break can work to reduce our feelings of burnout, exhaustion and isolation, and give us the time we need to collect our thoughts and emotions. We can look for places in our schedule we can set aside for relaxing activities, hobbies or rest, and ask another family member or friend to step in to briefly take over our responsibilities while we take a break. There are also programs and services available to support caregiver respite, which can be found using the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator.

2. Communicate effectively

Poor communication can often be a contributing factor of relationship strain. If we are having difficulty communicating with a loved one, we should consider:

  • Being patient and waiting for a loved one to finish phrasing their thoughts before responding to them
  • Avoiding raising our voice or using an angry tone
  • Using tact when bringing up difficult subjects, but not avoiding them altogether as this may lead to stress in the future
  • Considering a loved one’s feelings, and saving conversations that can wait for when they are feeling well rather than when they are tired, upset or under stress
  • Sharing our negative feelings with a close friend or relative instead of releasing our anger on the loved one we care for. If we feel we require additional help, we should consider scheduling an appointment with a counselor, or enrolling in a program such as WeCare to help us manage a loved one’s care.

3. Listen to our loved one’s preferences

Oftentimes, a loved one may disagree with our choices when providing care, which made lead them to feel upset or frustrated with us. When possible, we should take a loved one’s preferences into consideration and respect what they value most. We should ask ourselves, “What matters most to my loved one?”, and whether it is independence, safety, participation in activities that matter to them, not being a burden or having a say in who helps them with certain tasks, we should be sure to reflect these values in the care we provide. (Orsulic-Jeras, S., Whitlatch, C. J., Szabo, S. M., Shelton, E. G., & Johnson, J. (2016). The SHARE program for dementia: Implementation of an early-stage dyadic care-planning intervention. Dementia. Advance online publication. doi: 1471301216673455).

4. Separate the disease from the person

An important thing to remember if a loved one has a chronic health condition like dementia that may lead to challenging behaviors is that the person we love is being effected by something outside of their control. It is fine to be angry at the disease, but taking it out on a loved one may only upset and confuse them. It is also important to recognize that their difficult behavior can often be a form of communication, and listening and trying to determine what they need may solve the concern faster than getting frustrated or upset (Katherine S. Judge, Sarah J. Yarry, Wendy J. Looman, David M. Bass; Improved Strain and Psychosocial Outcomes for Caregivers of Individuals with Dementia: Findings from Project ANSWERS, The Gerontologist, Volume 53, Issue 2, 1 April 2013, Pages 280–292). 

5. Explore resources

If we are still struggling to maintain a positive relationship with a loved one, we should not be afraid to seek outside help. There are numerous caregiver support groups that can provide a safe environment for us to discuss our concerns and frustrations with peers who may be experiencing similar challenges. There are also caregiver coaching programs such as Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s WeCare, which can help us find solutions to our concerns, and access community resources that can offer us further support.