You’ve watched so many hours of Oprah, Dr. Phil and reconciliatory themed Hallmark Channel movies that you feel like an amateur family therapist. You’ve apologized for the times it was your fault, and turned the other cheek while trying to forget the times it wasn’t. You’ve reached out so many times that you feel like one arm is actually longer than the other.
You’ve tried to put the past in the past, manage your own hurt feelings and release regrets in the name of mending fences, only to have your feelings hurt anew with each interaction or lack thereof. If your family is like most families, the lifetime of shared experiences you’ve had and memories you’ve created together have run the gamut from fulfilling to frustrating and everything in between.
Having a relationship in need of repair with someone you care about is tough enough under “normal” circumstances. Adding the impact of Alzheimer’s or dementia to an already fragile family dynamic, it’s enough to make any of us head straight into a good long “ugly cry” as soon as we’re alone.
Sometimes it can feel like a hopeless situation that isn’t likely to improve. However, despite all of this hurt filled history, at the end of the day…you miss this person, you love this person and you wish things were better between you. But how can it be when it truly feels like you’ve already tried everything you can do to make it better?
The first thing we need to do is objectively self-reflect on that last part—the one where despite all of the justifiable reasons where we get to be the hero of the narrative, the one who has endured a legitimate or perceived wrong, we actually and honestly look at things a little differently.
Sometimes giving up can feel a lot easier than giving it another try. But, if there hasn’t been any truly physically or emotionally abusive behavior (which is inexcusable), then maybe one of the ideas below can give you another way to fight for a better relationship with someone you don’t want to give up on.
8 Ways to Improve Your Caregiving Relationship
Identify how you want the relationship to grow or improve. Putting it down on paper and looking at these wishes can help you focus on the future instead of what’s already occurred and help ground you when you’re in the heat of the moment.
Ask yourself honestly whether your past actions (and future ones too-before you act/speak on them) support or decrease the chances that the relationship will improve and grow the ways you hope for. Sometimes, whether we want to admit it or not, our behavior can actually be contributing to a delay on the path to a full reconciliation.
Forgive them. Forgive yourself. Maybe in this case you weren’t the one that was “wrong” maybe in this case you are doing everything “right”…but we both know it hasn’t always been this way. We’ve all done or said things at one time in our life or another that we ‘d like to take back or do differently. This person is no different. They may regret their behavior, but not know how to “fix” it, or they may be incapable of understanding the hurt they are causing. We may never know why some people act the way they do. What we do know is that we aren’t flawless people, so it isn’t very fair to expect that level of perfection in others. It isn’t our job to measure others with our own yard stick. How short might we “measure” up if others do that to us?
4. Own It
Own it, apologize for it and avoid doing it again. You can’t undo your mistake, but you can lessen the negative impact if you are truly honest in your self-reflection. If you are genuine in your self-awareness and authentic in your apology about what you did to contribute to the strife and if you are sincere in your desire to avoid repeating the same, you’ll be making a great step toward growing both yourself and the relationship.
Talk to them, not about them. I know you need to talk this difficult situation out, to vent about it, to process what’s happened because you’re hurt and the other person may not be very open to a healthy conversation right now. It’s not only OK, but maybe therapeutic to talk to others about things that are bothering you, but that should also be tempered with equal parts talking about what you can do to make it better and reaching out to the person directly. Too many times a need to talk to others can turn into an all-out recruitment effort to create allies in a war you don’t even want to fight. Lay down the weapons that gossip or harmful words can become and avoid enlisting others in your anger.
6. Avoid Anger
Don’t add insult to injury. Avoid fanning the flame and widening the divide between you by adding new reasons to be angry at each other. If your relationship is currently in an awkward or uncomfortable place, the first thing you can do to repair it is to not make things any worse. Practice “if/then” scenarios before they occur so you can prepare a more positive response. If you know this person is likely to say or do something that bothers you, think about how you might respond differently next time so you can help diffuse versus escalate the situation. This is a lot easier to do “in the moment” if you’ve given it some thought beforehand.
7. Avoid Publicly Venting
Avoid snarky social media posts. I’m not sure anyone involved in a difficult family dynamic has changed their behavior, had an epiphany or evolved their way of thinking all of a sudden because of a sassy Facebook cartoon or a status update describing the thinly disguised offenses of “some people.” This goes back to that honest earlier evaluation about whether our own actions are helping or hurting the healing process. If you need to vent, do it privately with a trusted confident, away from the eyes and ears of everyone you know.
Is it more important to be “right” or be together? Having a better relationship with this person will likely involve some compromises, and maybe more on your part than you’d like. Maybe the “right” thing would be that your sibling helps with the day to day care of your parent as much as you do, but if that’s not happening, then maybe it’s time to be OK with seeing them when they do show up-because having them around a little, is better than not ever seeing them at all. Work on what will create more quality time together. That could mean making then feel more comfortable around you by avoiding blame, resentful remarks, or re-airing of past problems and painful moments when you do see them again. Getting closer may actually look a lot like letting some things go.
Days become weeks, weeks give way to months and soon the time you’ve been estranged accumulates faster than either of you would want. Sometimes we are so sure that we are right, that we are willing to live at that virtual address of above reproach until we realize we will forever occupy that space all alone. Waiting for the other person to make the first move, or change or “see things my way” may be a long and lonely vigil, and chances are, the other person is thinking the same thing about you!
Forgiveness, hope, love and family are values many of us hold dear. If possible, err on the side that pursues each of these.
But, it’s also OK to trust yourself. Know when to say when. This is the tough one. Only you know when the hurt this relationship causes eclipses the healthy aspects of being in each other’s lives. Only you know when it’s time to stop trying.
We all hope that never happens. I hope you don’t let it happen until you try the ideas above at least one more time.
We want to hear your success stories, we want to learn more about what worked. Tell us in the comments below how you and a family member healed your hurt and came together in the face of caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia.