The Fragmented Family

A FamilyCare America expert tells you where to turn when your support groups are scattered.

A reader writes:

“I am concerned about the fragmentation of the American family. As an only child who is also a long-distance caregiver, I understand this concept too well. I have a support system of friends and my church, but I realize that there is a difference between what I might be able to expect from family and what I can expect from these people. Where else can I look for support?”

Alma Hassel, M.Div., is Night Chaplain at the Medical College of Virginia Hospitals of Virginia Commonwealth University and a faculty member in the Department of Patient Counseling. She responds:

“The greatest support one can have when going through the process of caring for a family member who is chronically or terminally ill should be found amongst family. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. Distance, alienation, difference in opinions or some other circumstance can prevent this from happening. Often, people are forced to turn to look elsewhere for the kind of support that might normally come from the biological family. On the other hand, even when people are receiving support from their biological family, it may not necessarily be what they want or need at any given time. If this is so, turning to outside sources as well as family could be a good process to begin.

“When looking to those outside the family for support, a person might seek assistance from Social Workers who could possibly help to address financial needs, housing needs, etc. Also, if the person seeking support is in a facility, the patient or caregiver might seek the help from the facility's chaplain, if one is present, who can help with finding solutions to questions that remain unanswered or place them in contact with people who are in the position to offer support.

“Another place a person can find support is amongst their neighbors. For example, in the African-American community, there is something called the ‘extended family.’ We take the concept of ‘It takes a village…’ and apply it when caring for oneself or another who is terminally ill. Although this concept has eroded over the last decade or so, it is still alive and well in some communities. If this idea is utilized, support can be found amongst neighbors who are willing and able to lend a helping hand with running errands, sitting with the ill person, cooking, cleaning, etc. This concept exists in other cultures as well.

“Also, the person who may be caring for a terminally ill family member can call for support from an Adult Daycare Home. This is good if the caregiver needs a break to regroup. This type of support may be short-term, but still can be very helpful in a highly stressful situation.

“When caring for someone who is terminally ill, being alone is not an option, although it may seem to be the only way to turn. A surrogate support system is important even when one has the support of biological family. We must not discount friends, church, institutions, and neighbors from making the dying process a graceful one. Everyone needs someone to lend a helping hand, to listen to, or just to be with.”

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