Over the years, there have been many posts in the Caregiver Forum about the questionable things family members do and how deeply these actions affect elders and their caregivers. It’s true that relationships are often strained when a serious illness and caregiving enter the picture. But, if your interactions with certain relatives are increasingly stressful and negative, it may be time to shut down family drama once and for all.

Toxic Family Members

It seems that every family has a “difficult” member: the one who is never around but somehow knows everything; the one you can never please, no matter how hard you try; or the one who makes every conversation and situation about themselves. These people would never consider helping you in any tangible way with caregiving. Yet, like I said, they consider themselves to be experts. They know it all and have done it all.

My wife, Phyllis June, and I have a few of these people in our family. The strange thing is, it has always been these few who seem to stick together through thick and thin. One could lie, and the others will swear to it. Everything is always about them, and they do nothing to help anyone else. When something happens to them, they always add their own flair to the story so it’s much more dramatic than it would be if they told the plain truth.

How are caregivers supposed to handle family and friends like this? Back in the day, before I was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I just let their nonsense roll off my back. I didn’t give them a second thought… until my health and my outlook changed.

Establishing Boundaries With Family

When I was diagnosed, one of the things everyone told my wife and me repeatedly was that I had to stay away from stress of any kind. We immediately made some adjustments, including retiring from my career in law enforcement and EMS. Some modifications were easier than others, but the hardest part was making changes based on another person’s behavior—especially when it’s someone you are related to. Most people can and do put up with a lot from their family, but our new circumstances meant that had to stop.

Ignoring our family members and their antics only worked for a couple of years. Then they did something that neither my wife nor I could put up with. I won’t go into details, but it was a deal breaker for us. We have washed our hands of these people, and we are better off for it. It is a sad thing to do, but we have accepted that they are never going to change. Now, when we see them, they look the other way, which is fine with me. I suppose they know they should leave well enough alone after the events that have transpired.

What I am trying to get at is, when you have dementia or another serious medical condition, you simply cannot put up with any nonsense. The stress that some family members bring to the table is entirely unnecessary and unacceptable. Furthermore, it is harmful.

The same applies for caregivers. You and your loved one are under an enormous amount of pressure just dealing with the emotional toll of dementia, daily hands-on care and any other serious health issues. Additional drama has no place in the caregiving equation.

I simply do not have the time or the inclination to deal with insensitive people. I would never go out of my way to be mean or hateful to anyone, but there comes a time when boundaries need to be set and enforced.

The bottom line is you cannot change people. Balancing your own sanity, your loved one’s well-being and the duty you feel to relatives is an immense challenge. However, your number one concern is your loved one’s welfare. Because they depend on you, that means your mental and physical health is also a high priority.

You can try to sit these people down and be rational about your feelings and their treatment of you, but most will never see the light. I want to be clear: I am not promoting family break-ups or estrangement. Everyone faces familial challenges and handles them in their own way. However, since I was diagnosed, my outlook and approach have changed. 

Two simple questions helped me reflect on my troubled relationships. If you are experiencing difficulties with a family member while caregiving, take a moment to contemplate the following:

  1. What does this person bring to my life and my loved one’s life?
  2. What have they done to make this journey easier on us?

If you are honest with yourself, the answers will speak volumes about your relationship.

Deciding How to Avoid Family Drama is Up to You

If you can come to an understanding where they realize you will not tolerate such behavior, then that is a wonderful thing. Open communication and appreciation of other points of view are vital to healthy relationships. However, your family member may not entertain either of these notions. They may not even be capable of doing so. If they were, they probably would have examined their behavior and made efforts to change already.

Instead, it is up to you to make the adjustment. Change your situation for the better. If that means altering who is involved in your life and the extent of their involvement, so be it. You will be surprised how much better off you will be by eliminating unnecessary negativity.

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but stress that is brought on for no reason is unacceptable. Sometimes we just need the courage to say, “What you are doing to me is not right, and I am not taking it anymore.”

Editor’s Note: Phyllis June Phelps, Rick’s wife of 38 years and primary caregiver, passed away November 9, 2021. She was 64 years old.

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