Setting boundaries can help you navigate challenging family dynamics

Categories: Care, Education, Featured, and People & Places.

Violet Guide Bridget supported Cecilia as she cared for both her parents, in a situation where personalities and challenging relationships added another level of complexity. She shares some practical advice for navigating complex family dynamics when you’re caring for someone in the last stage of life.

From our first conversation, it was clear Cecilia was dealing with a challenging family situation. She and her sister had spent two years caring for their parents, both of whom had life-limiting illnesses. At the end of 2021, her dad had suffered a heart attack and was resuscitated. Health professionals recommended a family meeting, but Cecilia’s brother – long estranged from the family due to tensions with their father – did not want to be part of the discussions.

Cecilia’s dad, a proud and self-sufficient man, was determined to go home, despite the strain this would place on his daughters. So the sisters carried on, arranging a bathroom renovation and employing private carers at a cost of thousands per week to honour their father’s wish. Eventually, she and her sister made the decision to place both parents into aged care.

By the time I spoke to her, Cecilia was exhausted, guilty and traumatised from dealing with her father. He had continued to cause issues at the facility, accusing the family of kidnapping him and refusing medications, hygiene cares and therapies. The staff were an excellent support, but Cecilia was often upset and in tears. As her father’s behaviour grew worse, Cecilia realised she needed to set limits.

The next time I spoke to her, Cecilia sounded very different – quite peaceful. Her dad had died with his wife by his side the day after her last visit, after expressing his appreciation for the care his daughters had given him and apologising for upsetting them.

On our last call, Cecilia told me she had no regrets. She managed so well in spite of all the difficulties.

Practical ways to handle family dynamics:

  • Set boundaries – Cecilia had reached her limit with a father. She knew she had to step back, set firm boundaries and limit her visits. This proved to be a turning point for her.
  • Lean on others – take advantage of the circles of care that are available around you. This could include friends, neighbours and other family members, as well as members of your healthcare team. Cecilia said her sister and husband were both rocks of support. She also had good support from aged care staff.
  • Look after your mental health – we’re increasingly seeing situations where dementia and mental health concerns are a part of the family dynamics picture. If you’re struggling with insomnia, anxiety or another aspect of your own health, you may not be in a good position to care for another person. However, caregivers are often blinded to their own wellbeing because they’re busy caring for someone else. Be sure to get the right support for yourself, whether that’s from someone who understands what you’re going through or a mental health professional.
  • Maintain your social life – outings with friends help remind you that you have a life outside of caregiving.
  • Make use of palliative care – there’s a misconception that palliative care is only for the final stage of life, but you can receive support much earlier. Palliative care services can provide holistic support and improve quality of life throughout the dying journey for people with life-limiting illnesses and their loved ones.
  • Be realistic – know what is possible and what is impossible. Cecilia, for example, knew the relationship between her father and brother could not be reconciled. Having realistic expectations can help you make better decisions and move towards a place of acceptance.
  • Take advantage of Violet’s resources – we have a range of helpful resources on the website. Start exploring them here.

If you think the support of a Violet Guide might help you or someone you know, click here to fill out an enquiry form or call 1800 846 538. Violet is a national not-for-profit and all our services are free.

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This information was extracted with permission from Violet.

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