Impact of caring on relationships with family

Caring relationships between carers and people being cared for do not exist in a vacuum but, rather, emerge in the context of individual families living in particular communities. This summary is about the impact of caring on family relationships. The carers interviewed described different ways in which caregiving affected their families, and some talked about what helped them address the impact of caregiving on family relationships (see Carers’ experiences of caring for themselves, Carers’ experiences of support groups, support workers and respite care) and Carers’ experiences of psychiatrists, counsellors and other mental health practitioners.

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Tensions and challenges
Social isolation from family
External supports

Julie described how her teenage daughter’s depression meant she had sometimes felt unable to take part in family activities.

The people we spoke to described how maintaining family relationships sometimes could be challenging. These challenges varied depending on whether the carer was a parent, a spouse/partner, or a sibling. While most people described how caregiving had caused tensions that in some instances adversely affected their family relationships, one carer said she felt caregiving had in some ways influenced relationships within her family for the better.

Sue described herself and her two children as ‘survivors of family violence’. She thought the onset of her son’s mental health problems may have spared them from further harm.

Tensions and challenges

Most people talked about how caregiving gave rise to different tensions within the constellation of family relationships. Parent carers, spouse carers and sibling carers all described how caregiving impinged on family relationships beyond the relationship between the carer and the person cared for. Most people said caregiving significantly affected family relationships. Many carers described how caregiving had caused disagreements to arise within families that had been difficult to resolve. Kate reflected that her brother’s illness had ‘massive repercussions on the whole family’, and George reflected on how his family was ‘torn apart’ due to the ‘enormous amount of tension’ his son’s mental health problems generated within their family.

Elena emphasised the importance of ‘looking after your own relationships’ with the rest of the family.

Parent carers and sibling carers who were in relationships described how caring for their loved ones who had been diagnosed with ‘mental illness’ had placed varying amounts of strain on their relationships with their partners. Lisa described how she and her fiancé had recently supported her brother by having him live with them while he was experiencing a ‘severe and prolonged episode’, which she said she thought had ‘exhausted’ her fiancé.

George said caring for their son created ‘enormous tension’ between him and his ex-wife to the point that their marriage ‘broke’.

Some parent carers and sibling carers interviewed were single, widowed or divorced and had not remarried, and were the sole support person. One single mother, Elizabeth, said she felt not being in a relationship meant she had been able to give most of her attention to her son with mental health problems, but she wondered whether caring for him had caused her ‘not to have another partner ever’.

For many parent carers, tension existed between themselves, their adult child with mental health problems and their other children. A few parent carers said their other children did not mind the amount of attention received by their sibling who was unwell. Elizabeth said her other son was an ‘independent person’ who did not get ‘upset’ by the amount of time she spent supporting his twin brother, and Iris’s youngest son helped her to care for his older brother with whom he lived in shared accommodation.

Many parent carers, however, described the relationships between themselves, their other adult children and the person being cared for, as strained. Elena said there were ‘still repercussions’ today on her relationships with her three other, now adult children, due to the fact that her son became unwell when they were teenagers. Most of her and her husband’s ‘energies’ then went towards her son at a time when ‘all needed support’.

Dianne felt ‘torn’ when many of her children moved out of home at a young age because they found it ‘difficult’ living with their brother after he became ‘unwell’.

Ballagh said that ‘jealousy’ between her son and his sibling who felt ‘neglected’ had taken a toll on her relationship with her other child.

A few of the spouse carers interviewed talked about how caregiving affected theirs and their partners’ relationships with their children. Of the three husbands who were caring for their wives, two had adult children and one had young children under the age of ten. Rowan described how most of his adult children who lived interstate kept in regular telephone contact with him and were supportive, but that he felt they avoided ‘dealing with the issue’ of their mother’s mental health problems.

Rich described how his two grown children did not ‘want to talk’ about their mother’s mental health problems.

Mike talked about trying to ‘minimise’ as much as possible the impact of his wife’s mental health problems on their young children’s daily life.

Social isolation from family

Many carers said caregiving contributed to their becoming isolated from their extended families. Several factors caused their sense of social isolation, including geographic distance from family who lived interstate, attitudes of blame, and fear of mental illness leading to relatives and friends or colleagues staying away and/or not talking openly with caregivers about mental health issues.

A few carers who were the sole support person found it challenging to visit immediate and extended family who lived interstate. They talked about the difficulties involved in leaving the person cared for at home while they were away, or travelling together with the person cared for.

James, a widower, described how he had taken his son interstate to visit James’s daughter for a week. He said it had required ‘military style’ planning.

For some carers, it was their relatives’ attitudes towards them that contributed to their sense of isolation from family. Bronwyn described how she turned to her brother for support after her son was arrested by police when he had an episode. She said her brother told her he was ‘not surprised’ about what had happened to her son and that it was Bronwyn’s ‘own fault’ for ‘spoiling’ him.

Dianne said her parents stopped talking to her after Dianne’s son moved out from Dianne’s home.

Some carers identified a ‘fear of mental illness’ among their family members as leading to carers and the people being cared for becoming socially isolated within their own immediate family. Rowan said he thought his grown up children, aside from one daughter, ‘kept away’ from him and his wife because they did not want to ‘see’ his wife’s symptoms.

Sue described how her daughter’s fear she might ‘get schizophrenia’ from her brother meant she stayed away and ‘isolated herself’ from Sue and her brother.

Rosemary described her youngest son’s ‘mental illness’ as the ‘elephant in the room’ which she thought her older adult children were too ‘afraid’ to talk about.

External supports

Some people talked about what had helped them to navigate the impact of caregiving on family relationships. The main supports that people identified were seeing a counsellor and attending carer support groups.

Dianne said finding ‘the right counsellor’ enabled her to ‘cope’ with the breakdown of her relationship with her mother who had disapproved of Dianne’s decision to ask her son to move out.

Talking to a counsellor helped Julie and her husband ‘work through’ their different views on how best to support their teenage daughter.