Define your role when a family member is ill, and then apply that experience in your practice.
- Most nurses experience being the “nurse in the family” when a loved one is ill, which can be a struggle and an opportunity to learn and grow.
- When a nurse is caring for a loved, the nurse must articulate how his or her actions are grounded in the practice roles of professional nursing.
- Nurses can promote and improve their own professional practice when caring for a loved one with intentional, humble reflection and being open to self-healing.
At one time or another in our careers, we become the “nurse in the family,” and sometimes we’re disappointed with our colleagues as we advocate on behalf of a parent or child. Other times, though, we’re in awe of the compassion and expertise we witness. Underneath it all may be turbulent emotions of love, conviction, and uncertainty mixed with our professional capacity as nurses to listen and react smartly while being held to unknown expectations.
Navigating this situation requires understanding nurse practice roles, defining your role with the family member, and learning from the experience. Taking these actions not only will help family members but also can help you cope with your emotions and improve your practice.
Nurse practice roles
In Relationship-Based Care: A Model for Transforming Practice, the authors define six practice roles of professional nursing: sentry, healer, guide, teacher, collaborator, and leader.
- Sentries watch over and protect others.
- Healers care for another’s body, mind, and spirit and help him or her improve health.
- Guides lead or direct another’s way through unfamiliar circumstances and possess intimate knowledge of the way.
- Teachers impart knowledge and help another learn a skill.
- Collaborators work cooperatively with others to achieve a common purpose.
- Leaders have the authority to act on behalf of others and possess the capacity to effect change and influence direction.
Family expectations frequently are diverse, hard to discern, and sometimes unrealistic. Nurses are tasked by the American Nurses Association’s Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements to promote health, ensure care in a dignified manner, and protect patient safety. This is hard work and may lead to conflict, feelings of failure or inadequacy, or being labeled as arrogant or a “know it all” by family members when you try to explain medical speak. Clarifying the inner conflict between your nursing and family roles and acknowledging that struggle to yourself and family members can enhance your ability to cope and your family’s understanding.
Your role as the nurse in the family extends beyond the high-risk, acute episodes of chronic disease exacerbations that become a reality with older family members. You’re also called upon to assist in ongoing care planning and coordination.
The situations described here are no doubt familiar to nurses across the country. And although the role of nurses in the family probably won’t change, what can change is how you accept the role and take action to prepare yourself to be the best advocate for your family. Positive actions include defining your role and learning from the experience.
Define your role
Preparing before acute situations occur makes it possible to implement a plan quickly and efficiently. Start by defining for yourself and your loved ones how you might practice each of the six professional practice roles as the nurse in the family. Your family may have an idea of what you do as a nurse, but they may not understand how you intentionally think and act. Explaining these processing and decision patterns can improve communication and help family members become more informed caregivers.
Determine the touchpoints or decision moments (for example, death of a spouse, fall or medication error, move from home, or change in financial/insurance situation) when roles might shift or be expanded. And be clear about your expertise. In some areas, you’re fully qualified to be the “know it all,” but in others you may be exploring options and needs along with the rest of the family. Keep the lines of communication open with the person receiving care and others (family members and healthcare team) involved.
Learn from the experience
Being the nurse in the family is exhausting and stressful, but it’s also an opportunity to learn empathy and compassion for the nurses who are family members and advocates of future patients you’ll care for. Understanding that nurses as family members are navigating a slippery slope with the extended family will create a path for collaboration. Include these nurses in care planning and implementation to enhance confidence in their decisions, which in turn can improve trust within the family and trust in your care.
The experience of being the nurse in the family also can be a catalyst to examine and improve your own practice. Ask yourself these questions and answer honestly:
- Was there a time that you let your assumptions cloud your assessment?
- Was there a time you received a report that labeled the patient in a poor light and you acted on that view rather than your own professional assessment?
- Was there a time that you skipped an intentional pause to learn the patient’s lived experience in their illness, which led to inappropriate treatment?
To grow professionally and continue to hone your practice, you have to be willing to ask yourself the hard questions and then humbly listen and improve. Patients, families, and your value as a nurse deserve this. Out of love, you care for your family with a heart and mind that wants to do the right thing. The experience also can make you a better nurse.
Roberta Young is a nursing and healthcare consultant in Fargo, North Dakota. Teresa (Terry) Anderson is an independent nursing practice consultant and chief nursing officer at Nobl Health in Lincoln, Nebraska.
American Nurses Association (ANA). Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements. Silver Spring, MD.: ANA; 2015.
Koloroutis M, ed. Relationship-Based Care: A Model for Transforming Practice. Minneapolis, MN: Creative Health Care Management; 2004.