The last 3 times I have been in Florida I set the expectation ahead of time that I would be in a land of tropical sun, warm breezes and return with a tan that everyone who encounters me would envy. However; the last few trips we have taken to Florida have been met with sub-seasonal temperatures, daily storms and fading of any skin color I had prior to my arrival.
Consequently, as I arrived in Florida a few days ago for the Cutler Family Reunion, I had the same expectations of sun, fun, pool, beach and a tan that would make the Bain de Sole tan woman jealous. So the ongoing thunderstorms that have plagued our trip thus far have caused great frustration, as well as a high level of annoyance for me. Why? Because I set the entire state of Florida up to fail with my unrealistic expectations.
Instead of looking at my trips as an opportunity to spend more quality time with my in-laws who live here, I have created an expectation of fun in the sun, and when that doesn’t happen I seldom look to flexibility and fellowship as a happy alternative.
Right now you may be thinking, gee Sue sorry about the stinky weather on your vacation but what the H-E-double hockey sticks does this have to do with anything? I’m glad you asked!
Over my 20+ years in the geriatric health care field I have met hundreds of family members that have, for most of their adult life, had completely unrealistic expectations of their parents and have spent the majority of their family life disappointed. I find this especially true in the case of a parent who has had addiction issues or has developed dementia. These adult children create the expectation before the visit that, maybe THIS TIME, mom will say thank you for all I’ve done to help her out. Or, setting up their siblings with an unrealistic expectation of offering assistance either physically or financially with a parents care needs.
The reality is that by setting these expectations we are really setting those people up to fail which, in turn, usually causes us to be upset. The problem with upset is that, as humans, we tend to carry this upset around with us to other areas of our lives and dump little pieces of our frustration out on unsuspecting bystanders such as spouse, children and co-workers.
So what can we do to stop the upset caused by unrealistic expectations? The answer is rather simple: stop setting unrealistic expectations. At this point I’m hearing a few “DUH Sue’s”, mostly from myself.
However; as simple as this seems, the implementation of it can be a bit more challenging. Here are some points to ponder about expectations:
• Evaluate the situation BEFORE you arrive. Example: if you are going to visit family in another state and you know that, though you love your family, taking them in smaller doses will be better for your health and happiness, then staying at a nearby hotel where you can have some de-brief and re-group time is essential.
• Don’t set expectations for the time together. Be open for anything which allows you to more easily go with the flow. If you are a “planner”, take a step back and give yourself permission to not be the one to “create” the family fun. This approach might freak others out a bit, however; in the long run you will find that you are more relaxed than you have ever been.
• When visiting a family member with a cognitive disorder (ex: Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury), learn everything you can about the disease in order to separate the disease from the person afflicted with it.
- For instance, I remember working with a family years ago who had stopped coming to see their mother because, due to her dementia, she had reverted to her native language of Swedish. Their mother had never spoken it in their home growing up so they had no way to communicate with her, every visit was a set up for failure. However; a granddaughter desperate to have some connection with her grandmother asked me for help. I worked with her to create memory books with photos and memorabilia from her childhood. The first time she came with her newly created scrapbook she asked me to accompany her to her grandmother’s room. I advised her to let go of any expectations and just be present to whatever might come. As she sat down next to her grandmother the most amazing thing happened, her grandmother let out a squeal of joy as she looked over the pictures and items pointing and making eye contact with her granddaughter as she shared information about each one. And, despite the fact that the information she shared was completely in Swedish, her excited tone, huge smile and connection with her granddaughter was apparent.
• When visiting family members who have the tendency to push your buttons, causing you to act like a lunatic, pro-actively come up with a code-word with your spouse that when said springs them into action removing you from the situation/conversation to assist them getting something out of the car or to look at the very interesting bush in the backyard. This way you have time to breathe and step back.
• When speaking to siblings about the care needs of a parent, be aware of the fact that, as the primary caregiver, we often create unrealistic expectations for ourselves that not even a super-hero could achieve and then become frustrated when others don’t step up to help. Sometimes all we need to do is ask for help. Other people are busy with their lives and if you have given off the impression that you have everything under control, you have left very little room for them to help out.
So ask for help, your siblings are not mind readers (unless they are and then you have every right to be upset because they should have known).
Anyway, I’m sure there are many other examples and ideas you can come up with as well. And, though I am still holding out hope for some sunshine today, I am going to look forward to the possibility of game day in the rain with my family.