I remember back in the 1970s, when my parents and I lived in a 3-family house along with my paternal grandparents. They lived on the top floor, we lived on the ground floor, and the second floor was rented out to a nice family which became part of our own. Not too far off, a few neighborhoods away, lived my aunt and uncle. In the next town, my grandparents’ siblings lived with their five children close by.

All of us would get together regularly for dinner, Sunday supper, birthdays, and major holidays.  I remember the good times, with family members helping one another out and celebrations with lots of laughter and dancing. I also remember the bad times, when fights would break out or a drunk relative would say the wrong thing. There was always a hustle and bustle going on at my grandparents’ home, which was the hub of most of our family activities. It was an idyllic time. We were an extended family.

By the 1980s, things had changed drastically. My parents divorced. My aunt, uncle, and their daughter moved out to California. My father remarried and moved with his new family to Florida. My grandparents stayed behind, but after my grandmother’s health deteriorated, she moved to California to live with my aunt.

By the late 1990s, what was once a tightly bound extended family had completely broken apart, literally scattered to all corners of the country. (I have family in Washington State, too.) While sad, it’s not atypical of what has happened to American families over the last several decades. A rising tide of feminism and waves of economic crises that began in the 1970s were just two factors driving the changes in our culture that couldn’t help but affect family structure.

So, over the last twenty years, even though we stayed in touch with one another, my family no longer enjoyed the close bonds that we had when we were all living within close radius. Lately, though, I’ve noticed a change. Many families are reconnecting in new ways.

Part of it may be social media—reconnecting with long lost cousins and distant relatives on platforms like Facebook. We read their posts and feel as though we know more about their activities and thoughts than we ever did before.

From my vantage point, another big part of it is eldercare. The care of my grandfather, who is now 92 years old and diagnosed with severe dementia, brought my father and his siblings together more frequently and in ways they never imagined, despite the fact they live across the country from one another.

My grandfather’s deteriorating condition and dire need for care forced them to deal with very sensitive issues: his finances, which of his children he trusts most, where he really wanted to live. But the outcome was not good. Ultimately, these difficult conversations broke down the warmth that formerly existed among family members, exposing old hurts and grievances, many of which were still surprisingly raw.

Instead of embracing this opportunity to work together for the sake of my grandfather and deepening their relationships with one another, the situation broke our family apart. Family members are now in court battling one another over finances and conservatorship. This has been going on for so long (the last five years) that I’ve lost track of what they’re really fighting over.

I’m pleased to report that many families face the challenges of eldercare far more successfully. In my work with eCareDiary.com, I hear stories about families and siblings who have gotten it right. I learn about families who embraced their caregiving situation and pulled together for the sake of their loved one. I hear about renewed relationships between sister and brother, restored relationships between a parent and an estranged son, repaired relationships between a cancer victim and her ex-husband.

This is what it’s all about: seizing the opportunity in a caregiving situation to appreciate the preciousness and brevity of life, letting go of old hurts so we can open ourselves to new outcomes with our loved ones.

As I read about the oncoming “silver tsunami,” with a rising population of elders living longer and relying on their families for care, I predict that eldercare will drive another major transformation in family dynamics. My prediction—and hope—is that families split apart by distance or career pursuits will be brought back together through the act of caregiving.

For those ready and willing to unite, here are some tips and tools that can help you as a family begin the process.

Divide and Conquer. When it comes to caregiving, there is usually one point person or leader.  That person should prepare a list of tasks needed to be done, and should consider who in the family may be best suited for each task. For example, if help is needed with meal preparation, that task goes to someone who loves to cook. Or have family members choose their own tasks from the to-do list.

Organize a Family Meeting. When critical decisions need to be made about a loved one’s future, it’s best to call a family meeting. One person must be the designated leader; if that’s too complicated for your family situation, then bring in a neutral outside party, like a social worker or geriatric care manager (visit www.caremanager.org for a GCM in your local area). The leader should establish an agenda for the meeting and make sure that everyone is in agreement with the topics to be covered. Topic by topic, the leader should make sure all voices are heard and all concerns are expressed. Every meeting should end with a recap of what was agreed upon or yet to be resolved, along with a list of next-action-steps assigned to specific persons. This closing is critical, because it brings clarity and ensures that everyone leaves the meeting with the same information.

Use Online Management Tools. Online tools, like eCareDiary.com’s free Care Diary, usually include a private calendar, document storage, and social media platform to help families manage and communicate with each other on the diverse aspects of their loved one’s care. Information is stored in one place, so that all those in the circle of care have access to the same information, leaving less room for error or misinterpretation. The information can also be shared with the patient’s healthcare providers and professional caregivers. Online tools help keep long distance family members in the loop on the patient’s progress and care scheduling needs.

As more and more of us face the challenges of caregiving for aged parents, ill partners, or other loved ones, it’s important to see the opportunities for growth that caregiving presents to us, too—not just as individuals, but as families.

This article closes WVFC’s summer-long Special Focus on Caregiving. We’ll continue to cover this important topic in the future. And you can always access past articles by clicking the ‘caregiving’ category under ‘health’ in the navigation bar. —Ed.

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