A “blended family” is one in which one or both of the adults in the household were previously married (or had a different partner) and have children from that marriage or relationship.
Every family has its own issues, and individual members can add to them with their own emotional needs, opinions and concerns.
In a blended family, children may feel more allegiance to one parent over the other. They may or may not accept the new spouse. Parents, regardless of whether or not they are willing to admit it, usually feel more protective of their own children than they do towards their step-children. A parent may question whether or not their spouse will be good to their children after they are gone. A spouse may wonder if step-children will take care of them or share in caregiving if the need arises in the future. If there is a large age difference between step-siblings, younger step –children may feel closer to the new spouse than that parent’s older children who are not as involved in the daily household. Blended families may also include “yours, mine and ours” if there are children from the second marriage. Sometimes, no matter how close a person is with their step-child, when the need for caregiving arises, that child may give total responsibility to the children from the first marriage (“your parent, your responsibility”) and step aside. Whatever the reason for remarriage, family members will have different thoughts about their responsibilities when it comes to helping to provide care to their parents and step-parents based upon their views of this new family, their relationships, and their view of the perceived threats or benefits to them.
Sometimes, families are fortunate and the new family becomes a unit, with little differentiation between whose children or parents are whose. However, each person brings their own version of family history and expectations to the new blended family. Old issues and unresolved childhood issues between siblings and other family members can resurface and become problematic. Each person will have different styles of dealing with conflict or simply not want to deal with it at all. Families, blended or not, often disagree on issues related to medical, financial or legal affairs.
Take the story of Sara and Jeff (names changed). Both divorced from their first spouses , they remarried 25 years ago, when Sara’s children were young and Jeff’s were in college. Sara’s husband lived abroad and the children saw him only several times a year, and as such, they developed a closer relationship with Jeff. Jeff’s children did not return home after college, and while they accepted Sara, they maintained a closer relationship with their mother and did not develop a more than cordial relationship with her or their step-siblings, who were around ten years younger. When Jeff became seriously ill, his biological children were fine with letting Sara and her children manage his care and be his primary caregivers. They remained at a distance, and while Sara kept them informed as to his status, they only checked in by email and phone when convenient. When Jeff could no longer be cared for at home, his children suddenly became involved, demanding control of his financial and legal affairs.
What can you do? Have an honest conversation with your parents and step-parents (and with your siblings) about how they expect the family to share decisions about health care and other types of assistance before they may need them. Some families are able to talk things out openly and honestly. Others cannot.
If the conversation becomes angry, or there are feelings of guilt or revenge that do not serve the best interests of the parent you are trying to help, make sure any recollection of events and circumstances that are brought up are correct. Sometimes, there is one person in the family that believes they should be in control, based upon gender or age, even though they might not be the most qualified or be willing to put in the required time.
Put aside old conflicts and concerns to work together. It’s not about something that happened years ago (and what really happened might be very different from the way it is remembered!) Sibling rivalry can become even stronger as children worry about the possibility of sharing their inheritance (which is often equated with the deepness of a parent’s love,) and argue about who “deserves” what and how much.
These conflicts can affect your parent’s well being. Bad decisions can be made because of individual emotional and personal issues. Sometimes there is just too much tension to have a productive discussion. If necessary, an independent third party, such as an Elder Mediator or other senior advisor should be engaged to help. Solutions involve compromise from everyone.
It is important for families to learn ways to work through their differences for the common goal of wanting the best possible care for their parent. Remember, this conversation is not about you. It is about what is best for your loved one.