The definition of family has been evolving for some time. In 1950, “nuclear” families, two-parent families with children, headed 78% of the nation’s households.1 The United States was primarily a Father Knows Best nation. As a result of the increase in divorce, separation, death, and live-in partners, today’s norm is a “blended” family, defined as a family in which one or both of the adults was previously married and have children from that marriage. In the 21st century, The Brady Bunch family has replaced the Father Knows Best family. In fact, 1,300 “blended” families are formed each day.2
Family loyalties or allegiances are even more complex in a blended family than they are in a nuclear family. Nuclear families face common planning issues, such as: should financial resources and other family treasures pass directly to the spouse or to the children? How will the children be involved in the long-term care needs of their older relatives? Who will the decision makers be if an aging parent is not competent to decide for herself? In blended families, these same issues arise, but the decision-making process can be much more complicated. It is common for a biological parent to have greater loyalty to his own children than to his spouse’s children even though it is not popular to admit it. One partner may wonder, “If anything happens to me, will my spouse treat my biological children in the same way he treats his own? Will my stepchildren be as committed to my well-being as my own children will be?” Oftentimes, there is conflict between the stepparent and stepchildren that leads a spouse to worry that his biological children will feel abandoned or neglected by his wife and may not be well taken care of after his death.
Many of our values and priorities are driven by the experiences that occur over the course of our lives. The era when we grow up and the values we were exposed to in our youth strongly influence our approach to life. With blended families, the challenge comes in trying to combine various sets of rules, expectations, and values that are a product of each part of the family’s history and each generation within that family system.
Ideally, the entire family should be included in the discussion when senior family members talk about their wants and needs related to long-term care and end-of-life issues. When that happens, the motives behind their parents’ wishes can be better understood. As a result, the work toward consensus on the best way to honor those wishes is easier.
Unfortunately, many families wait until the crisis (broken hip, stroke) occurs to start the conversation. In those circumstances, several factors will determine how possible it is to achieve consensus. First, is the family invested in the well-being of its senior members? Secondly, does the family have a history of having the “difficult conversations” that they can fall back on to make it work? And, finally, is there a third party that is seen as a resource in these sorts of situations that can help the family make informed decisions?
Each individual’s ranking in the family hierarchy will often determine how much input they have into the decision-making process. The family’s ability to have the conversation can often be the key to achieving consensus about how to proceed. Some families have fostered an open and honest tradition for talking things out. Others are not so fortunate.
There a number of “red flags” for blended families to be aware of. Is the process focused more on negative emotional needs (anger, guilt, revenge) and not on the best interests of the individual? Are there members of the family that are not included in meetings and discussions? Are non-relatives (employees, neighbors, and friends) more involved in the process than family members? Does significant conflict exist regarding the “status” of one or more family members?
5 Factors to Consider
A number of factors should be considered in trying to overcome the obstacles facing blended families when long-term planning is required:
- Are people clear about the “it” – is the information that the family is working with reliable and accurate?
- Are they aware of the resources that exist in the community to help – has anyone done their research to see what programs and services are available to them and the cost of such services?
- Are the people in the conversation the right players for this process – do the people around the table have the capacity or “right” to be making decisions? Do they have the best interest of the elderly person in mind?
- Would a third party be useful in helping the conversation be more productive – oftentimes an objective third party can better facilitate a process given that she does not have the emotional baggage families are saddled with.
- Is the timing right for making a good decision – in the midst of a personal or medical crisis, a rush to judgement can send families down the wrong path. Many situations can be very fluid resulting in constantly changing needs.
1 Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson.
2Kevin Lehman, PhD. (1994) Living in a Stepfamily Without Getting Stepped On.