Providing Compassionate Care to a Difficult Family Member

Posted at Sep 09, 2014 | 125 Comments

Family caregiver

 Dear Sandy:

I am currently the primary caregiver for my 91 year old mother-in-law. All of her life, people have considered her to be a very difficult woman. That hasn’t changed as she’s grown older. Her own daughters have a very strained relationship with her and rarely help with her care at all. My husband does what he can but he travels a lot for work. That leaves just me to try to care for her. I feel like no matter how hard I try, she complains about everything including that I’m not very compassionate. I may be fighting a losing battle, but I would like to know just how to be perceived as being more compassionate. It’s frustrating to hear this over and over when her own children have essentially abandoned her! Any suggestions?

Barbara in Gaylord, Michigan

Dear Barbara:

You are in a tough spot. Hats off to you for trying when others have given up! I do have one recent resource you might find to be of help! A study in Health Expectations tackled this very issue. Researchers explored what people who are ill believe compassion is and how they really want to see their caregivers, demonstrate it.

The University of Rochester Medical Center undertook the study that lasted eight months. They documented communication between 23 oncologists and 49 critically ill cancer patients. Their research focused on three key areas related to compassion:

  • Recognizing and acknowledging the person is in pain and suffering
  • Making an emotional connection with the person who is suffering
  • How they address the suffering

Watching people suffer every day can be mentally and emotionally draining. Caregivers and health care professionals may unconsciously learn to block out suffering as a way of coping. In your case, that your mother-in-law has always had a reputation for being difficult so that only compounds the issue. But unacknowledged suffering makes those living with an illness feel as if their anguish isn’t being taken seriously.

As a caregiver you can do top three things participants in the study demonstrated make a difference:

  • Tone of Voice. Just the tone of your voice can demonstrate a lot. It can signal empathy or agitation. Be sure to pay attention not just to what you are saying but how you say it.
  • Use humor. This may be just the ticket with your mother-in-law or you could run the risk of making her more difficult, but it’s probably worth a try.
  • Positive non-verbal skills. Body language can convey feelings. For people with a critical illness, long pauses and sighs can be used to demonstrate empathy if used correctly or they can signal someone is being a burden if not. Pay attention to your non-verbal communication skills.

I hope this helps you, Barbara! If not, I would recommend talking with a professional counselor. They might not be able to help you change your mother-in-law’s attitude, but they can likely help you find ways to cope with it!



Photo Credit


Developed by RCP Marketing