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Monday, October 1, 2018

Challenges Faced by Blended Families at End of Life

by Lizzy Miles (@lizzymiles_MSW)

As with all my articles, I need to acknowledge that I’m still learning always.  Because of the nature of my job as a float social worker, every patient and family is new to me every day. I have to rely significantly on others’ charting and I have to make sure my own is tip top. For patients who are new to hospice, I make it a special point to learn the nuances of their family dynamic so that I can pass the information on to the care team. There is a fine line between with getting the details and not getting mired down in detail. Ultimately, the key is really paying attention to language.

These days it is common to work with families in which both the patient and spouse are on their second marriage and both have children from previous marriages. Blended families can be beautiful as they can represent a fractured family becoming whole again in a new way. Remember the Brady Bunch? Double the family, double the love.

However, when blended families have conflict at the end of life, it can complicate everything from caregiving to funeral planning.

For blended families, there are “technical” relationship identifiers and “perceived” relationship identifiers. You may wonder why you would need to clarify the difference, and there are a couple of different reasons.

1.  If there is no designated health care power of attorney (POA), state laws for surrogate decision-making focus on biological relations, and by default step-family are further down the line or even excluded. Even if there is POA, many funeral homes often depend on next-of-kin hierarchy.

2.  The step-relationship may come in to play in regards to caregiving support these family members choose to offer.

Intervention: Be cautious when referencing a relationship as it was previously identified in charting. Other clinicians don’t always make the distinction.

The clinician may have charted “Dad” when the family member is actually “stepdad.” Alternatively, the clinician may have charted “step-sister” without acknowledging the family uses the “sister” label.

I had one daughter who referred to both her dad and her stepdad as “dad.”  No other clinician understood that the primary caregiver “dad” was technically a stepdad.

Perception of “step” may vary within a family. Sometimes feelings about relationships are not mutual.

The age of the sibling might affect their use of the label. I’ve seen older children from the first marriage identify younger step-siblings with the “step” label, while younger children only ever knew and talked about the older ones as “siblings.”

On the subject of grandchildren, a daughter-in-law once “assisted” my conversation with a patient by asking how many grandchildren she had. I never ask the question because numbers challenge the memory. The patient gave a number that only reflected her biological grandchildren which angered the daughter-in-law who had children from a previous marriage. I then was a helpless witness to a 20 minute argument in which the patient was adamant that the step-grandchildren didn’t “count” and the daughter-in-law was visibly upset.

A step-mom may consider her step-children as “children” but if the children are still connected to their biological mom, there is a possibility that the feeling is not mutual.

Intervention: In your own documentation, be clear and distinct with family preferences for labels. 
For example, you could say something like, “The youngest two are technically step-sisters, but family members do not use the “step” identification.”

Be sure to also chart any sensitive areas on the topic, as with the example about the grandmother.

Intervention: Use language the way they do. 
If you’re talking to someone who clearly delineates within the family, reference “step-sister” or better, yet, use the person’s name. If a child thinks of their stepdad as “dad” then use the word “dad.”

One cannot make assumptions about how a person will be a caregiver based on their familial relationship to the patient. In a best case scenario, we would see the whole family supporting one another and equally sharing the burden. Unfortunately this is not always the case. A few years ago I wrote about how to navigate working with a reluctant caregiver. At the time, though, the dynamics of blended families weren’t completely on my radar.

One blended family challenge is the situation in which a patient is part of a couple that is on their second marriage and patient and caregiver each have children from prior marriages. You could have a combined total of ten children and still no one helping the spouse. The children of the caregiver don’t feel an affinity towards the patient, and the children of the patient do not feel that they need to be the ones to relieve the caregiver. These may seem like stereotypes. They are, and they do not apply to all blended families. This article, however, is addressing situations in which the family system is not working smoothly and is an attempt to explore how we, as professionals, approach these situations.

Alternatively, in some blended family situations, it is one or more of the children who are the primary caregivers and the second spouse is the one who is the reluctant caregiver.
While you want to have an awareness of family dynamics, you do not want to have a position on them. It would be very easy to side with the caregiver who is involved and complaining about others who are not involved. But you don’t know the history of the family and their relationships.

Intervention: First of all, stay out of the mud slinging
Provide supportive listening, but do not take sides. Who is right or wrong is not our place to say.
Don't say, “What a jerk!” Do say, “It sounds like you’re disappointed that he is not more involved in the care.” Document objectively any family dynamics that could affect care.

Intervention: Be solution focused
While we want to provide supportive listening to a family member who is frustrated with a caregiving situation, we also need to redirect focus to the reality of the situation at hand and what we can actually do to ensure the patient is getting good care and the caregiver is supported.

Intervention: Complete HCPOA
If the patient is still oriented and does not yet have a health care power of attorney, encourage them to complete this document. Ask them who they want their primary decision-maker to be. Do not assume it will be their spouse. Be clear with patient and family that without the document, though, the spouse is the primary decision maker in the event patient is no longer able to speak for themselves. When a patient has only been married a few years or less and the children are well into middle age, the spouse’s authority can sometimes be a point of conflict.

Intervention: Have a family meeting focused on goals of care
If family members are involved but disagree on care, encourage everyone to get together at the same time to discuss goals of care. This should be centered on what the patient wants. In an ideal world, the meeting would involve the patient, the whole hospice team and all involved family members. For families providing care at home, at a minimum, the nurse and social worker should both be there. There might be medical questions for the nurse to answer, and social workers have more training in group dynamics and facilitation.

Intervention: Assist with communication and language
Assist the primary caregiver with phrases that he or she can use to ask for help. Sometimes the family can get so caught up in the dynamics of a relationship that they don’t know how to ask for what they need. They may have a habit of accusing someone of not being around enough, but complaining in itself isn’t effective.

I always tell caregivers that it is easier for others to agree to help them if they are specific in their request. I would work with them to find out what their biggest needs are and then help them phrase the “ask.”   I might suggest they say something like, “It would be helpful to have a weekly two hour block of time that I can count on to run errands. I don’t feel comfortable leaving [patient] alone. Is there a time when you might be able to come over to relieve me?”

Advice for you: Help with what you can, let go of the rest
As you are working with challenging families, you may find yourself frustrated by situations that you can’t fix. If this happens and you find yourself having an adverse reaction to a family situation, take a step back to explore your response.

For more articles by Lizzy Miles, click here. For more articles about communication, click here. For more articles about social work, click here.

Lizzy Miles, MA, MSW, LSW is a hospice social worker in Columbus, Ohio and author of a book of happy hospice stories: Somewhere In Between: The Hokey Pokey, Chocolate Cake and the Shared Death Experience. Lizzy is best known for bringing the Death Cafe concept to the United States. She is currently funding her fourth Kickstarter campaign Hora Fugit which seeks to send willing participants gentle postcard reminders of their mortality. You can find her on Twitter @LizzyMiles_MSW.

Photos via Unsplash- Ink by rawpixel; Dad's Keys by Hope House Press; Mugs by Worthy of Elegance

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