This is a part of the Hot Topic podcast series from the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center on Managing Bowel Function After Spinal Cord Injury. Denise G. Tate, Ph.D., researcher, discusses Family Dynamics and Resilience.

Denise G. Tate, Ph.D., ABPP

Professor and Associate Chair for Research

Co-Director, University of Michigan Spinal Cord Injury Model System

So patients and families, I think, handle the situation of having a spinal cord injury, needing a lot of care, particularly when it is a high level of impairment like a cervical spinal cord injury, somebody has tetraplegia, for example, in different ways. And I think what I’ve learned through my professional life is, those who have really good social support, emotional support, seem to do better. Those who already had somewhat a dysfunctional family to begin with for whatever reason, didn’t get along — it becomes really difficult.

So I have spoken to parents who were very angry that their son has done this or because they were starting their retirement, and now they have to become the nurse for their son. So there’s a lot of angry feelings about that. There are ways that — between daughters and mothers or sons and fathers, they might not feel comfortable with that kind of level of intimacy.

And negotiating new relationships with a parent or might be a sibling sometimes — I mean, we’ve had situations where the father had to be helped by a daughter because there was nobody else in the house who could help them. It becomes really very emotionally draining for them until they pass that stage and that they become desensitized to that and they see themselves differently now.

Not only the patient, but also the family member. So some people can do that, and they’re resilient. They are able to react to adversity and to stress in a very positive way. Others really have a hard time, and we try to help them when we can with communication, which is really important in terms of the relationship, the personal relationship with the caregiver.

I think for families that are — we call it stuck in the situation, and it’s hard for them to get over this — one of the things that maybe help them is to have more friends, more social support, and if they have role models, people like Tom Hoatlin, who works with our patients as a peer support counselor, that can talk about their experiences, what it was like for me. And how did I get around.

And the families can be part of that communication, part of that discussion. I think it’s really helpful, because most of us don’t know what we’re going to encounter until we encounter it, and we don’t know where the solution lies, either. So if you can — from others — if you can learn from others, it certainly helps a great deal.

So that’s why we really recommend peer counselors in our system. It helps a great deal with the patients, having to talk to someone who’s experienced the same thing you’re experiencing right now, in addition to professional help. But I think that’s very helpful.

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