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Blended Families and Caregiving

Bonnie has known life in a blended family since her parents first divorced when she was just seven years old.  Today at age 45, Bonnie has four parents, her biological mom and dad, as well as her step-mom and dad all of whom she worries about as they age and begin to require assistance to stay in their own homes.  She additionally has her own growing family with school-aged children to look after―both from her first marriage, and step-children from her current husband’s. Both she and her husband are concerned about his parents too as he and a sibling have already begun caring for his father, who is much older and showing signs of dementia. Like Bonnie and her husband, more and more adult children are facing the reality of acting as a family caregiver in a blended family setting. According to a survey of 2,700 adults by the Pew Research Center, 42% of respondents reported having at least one step relative. Blended families can present unique challenges in all phases of life but when parents and step parents begin to face the struggles of aging family, caregiving can present unexpected difficulties―however there can also be advantages.

Caregiving with Step-Siblings

While it may appear that more parents means more caregiving responsibilities, families that include step siblings may provide additional caregivers with whom to share the burden of care. Individuals coordinating care in a blended family can work with siblings and step-siblings to share duties based on availability and skill set.  However, there’s no doubt that for many caregivers, coordinating with siblings can be a challenging situation due to the fact that the heaviest burden generally lies on one person.  (See our fact sheet, Caregiving with Your Siblings.)

Caregiving for and With Step Parents

Blended families can each have their own unique set of personality conflicts, politics and drama that require special handling. Having to face the rigors of family caregiving can exacerbate any existing struggles in relationships between adult children and parents or step parents. Whether you are faced with needing to care for a step parent with whom you have never been particularly close or are navigating care for your biological parent with the assistance from a step parent you have had conflict with in the past, it can be important to plan ahead in order to avoid excess conflict in the midst of already stressful situations. Planning for caregiving in advance and by including the care recipient if possible can help diffuse tensions between blended families by allowing the care recipient to make their own wishes clear. This may include information for types of care, what to do in the event that they can no longer live at home and how the estate will be handled in case of death. While assigning an individual as durable power of attorney or creating healthcare proxies prior to a need won’t always resolve all of the potential emotional conflict, the boundaries and explanations may help everyone feel more secure.  (Read our fact sheet on Durable Powers of Attorney and Revocable Living Trusts.)

Navigating Care With Respect Regardless of whether you have a stellar relationship with members of your blended family or one that causes anxiety, it is important to understand that what each member of the blended family most wants is the respect of others. By doing your best to work as a team and by coordinating care in advance, you can work towards your end goal which is to ensure that a loved one is cared for. There will likely be unexpected emotions that present themselves along the way. Past conflicts may continue to present themselves but when it comes to caregiving with step parents or step siblings you may find that the best results are obtained by focusing on the task at hand. Have you had experience caregiving within a blended family? If so, please leave a comment and share any tips you have on navigating this unique kind of family caregiving.