“This Is What Family Does”: The Family Experience of Caring for Serious Illness

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Abstract

Background:

As the demographics of caregiving in United States evolve toward multigenerational, distributed family structures, the ways in which individuals and their families experience serious illness are changing. As part of a project to create an innovative model of supportive care for serious illness, a series of user interviews were conducted, forming the basis for this article.

Objective:

To understand the experience of caregiving for individuals with serious illness from an intergenerational family perspective.

Methods:

Twelve semistructured group interviews were conducted with patients, families, and professionals. Transcript data were analyzed with descriptive coding, looking for major themes and subthemes related to family experiences.

Results:

Seventy-three individuals participated in group interview sessions. While both families and individuals encountered caregiving challenges, the family unit experienced care in several unique ways. It accommodated differences in temperament and readiness, managed internal conflict, and strived to emerge as a cohesive unit. Individual struggles were often magnified or, more often, ameliorated by family context. Caregiving itself formed a legacy for future generations. Finally, care was seen as bidirectional, being tendered both by the family caregivers and in turn by the patient.

Conclusions:

When talking about care for serious illness, individuals report both rewards and challenges, often in a family context. The family enterprise manages a loved one’s care, negotiates the health-care system, and adjusts its own internal dynamics. Integrating the family narrative provides a more balanced view of the family system that provides the day-to-day care for individuals with serious illness.

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