Nearly half-a-million Americans over 65 remarry each year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That number is projected to keep increasing, meaning more and more family caregivers will find themselves in situations where they are either looking after an aging stepparent or having to discuss and manage a loved one's care with stepfamily members.

Caregiving often causes varying degrees of conflict, even among the most close-knit family units. This potential for discord can be enhanced in blended family situations, because step relatives haven't had decades to bond with one another, says Carey Sherman, Ph.D., investigator at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Sherman led a recent study on spousal caregiving, stepchildren and stress, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Her team of researchers discovered that women who remarried and were caring for a husband with dementia often experienced increased strain from uncooperative or unhelpful stepchildren. "The majority of the women felt ‘let down' or ‘alone' in their caregiving role, and expressed surprise, disappointment and hurt, due to the lack of support from their stepchildren," she says.

Indeed, the stress of interfamily discord was so great that many of the women surveyed said that dealing with disagreeable stepchildren topped their list of caregiving-related stressors.

Personal connections beat blood bonds

Previous research suggests that the quality of family relationships typically trumps blood ties in caregiving scenarios. People are more likely to take care of (and want to take care of) individuals who've supported them in the past, regardless of whether they share the same genetic makeup.

A University of Missouri investigation found that, while genetics are an important factor for most would-be caregivers, shared DNA patterns weren't enough to oblige an individual to care for a family member he or she didn't share a positive connection with.

"How close family members are to each other, how much they have been helped by them in the past, and what hardships caregiving might place on family members are important factors when people consider caring for older kin," remarks Lawrence Ganong, a professor in Missouri's Human Development and Family Studies department.

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The problem facing adults who remarry at an older age is that their combined family hasn't had the benefit of decades to forge these tight bonds and find their unique niche within the family unit. Also, as Sherman points out, older couples who've been divorced or widowed may focus more on their relationship, rather than trying to make sure their far-flung adult children play nicely with each other.

With fewer chances to cement strong relationships, these offspring may run into trouble if an unexpected event forces the issue of who will take care of mom or dad.

Strategies for avoiding interfamily arguments

Whether step relatives are involved or not, the same rules for interfamily interactions apply:

  • Hold a family meeting as soon as possible. When an elderly loved one falls ill, chaos can reign if there's no plan in place to take care of them. Getting the family together (whether in person, or via telephone conference call) is an essential initial step.
  • Let everyone have their say. During the family get together it's important to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions. The best way to avoid conflict and come up with an effective care plan for your loved one is to avoid passing judgment and respect other family members' decisions. Seeing a loved one suffer and hearing that other family members can't or won't help can be infuriating, especially if you're the one providing the majority of the care, but it's important to keep in mind that not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver.
  • Divide and conquer. Everyone who wants to participate in the care of an elderly loved one should be included in the family care plan. Even if someone lives thousands of miles away, they can still play a role—perhaps managing finances, or providing periodic respite care for the primary caregiver.
  • Bring in a third-party. Especially if interfamily relations are contentious, it may be helpful to recruit an objective outsider—social worker, clergyman, family friend, etc.—to help facilitate a discussion between family members. A third-party with some connection to the family can approach the issues with a more pragmatic, yet caring approach.
  • Keep your expectations realistic. Even the most harmonious families will disagree on some issues—caregiving is so emotionally-charged. Don't anticipate a solution to every problem. Accept that everyone may not be on board with every decision regarding a loved one's care and know that some compromises will be necessary.

Perhaps the best way to stave off clashes over care and responsibilities is to develop an action plan before a loved one needs help, says Sherman.

Having conversations with the elderly about end-of-life issues can be daunting, especially for adult children, but such discussions can save your family a lot of future strife and heartache.