When Bill and I were young parents, our three babies each had their season of keeping us up all night. Our bodies and minds felt stretched as we cared for them, but those children were so adorable the challenges felt worth every sacrifice. Fast forward several decades, our children were launching, getting married, and starting families of their own when Bill’s parents became less independent. We had to balance care for our marriage while caregiving for parents.
In their late eighties, his parents needed more practical, tangible, hands-on help. In our fifties and relatively healthy, our three-hour drive from San Diego to Thousand Oaks in California where Bill’s folks resided, seemed doable. After all, his folks only needed assistance a few times each year. Dad called when he needed to go to the doctor, have surgery, or could use help with a home maintenance project.
Following a stroke in his early 40s that left half his body disabled, Bill’s dad was frail of body. He was rehabilitated to walk with a limp and adjusted to using only one arm. However, as he aged, he relied first on a cane and then a wheelchair.
His mother was frail of mind. Struggling with mental illness, her emotions ranged from fragile to volatile. Eventually, his mother gave into her agoraphobic fears.
A second stroke increased the amount of help Bill’s dad required. Southern California’s increasing traffic turned the three-hour drive into six hours. As their health declined, the time between trips became shorter. The turning point came at the end of an arduous commute. It was midnight when Bill wearily climbed the stairs of our home.
“Oh honey!” I took in the late hour and his look of complete exhaustion. “Keeping your parents alive is killing you.”
“I am so tired,” Bill mumbled as he fell into bed.
“Should we move closer to support your parents and save your health?”
“Let me sleep on it and pray, then let’s talk.”
I kissed my husband, prayed over him and our future. The comfortable, cozy marriage we were familiar with was headed to a steep uphill learning curve.
After nearly a decade as caregivers for his parents, the challenges have grown rigorous but our love has become closer, sweeter, and stronger. To protect and cultivate our marriage, we made several vital choices. When demands and responsibilities are heavy, how could we build in respite that allowed us to care for our marriage while caring for parents?
Respect Each Other’s Needs Yet Make Decisions Together
From the beginning, we set the pattern of teamwork. We talked through each of our needs: emotional, physical, spiritual, relational, and mental. This helped us decide when we would relocate, and where we would live. We considered how often we each desired to see our grown children, grandkids, and Pam’s mother who all lived in other states.
Engage in Refreshing Activities and Tender Kindness
Caregiving can be strenuous and draining so we chose to make our home on a liveaboard boat. Coming home after our ministry work or a long day of caregiving to the marina made part of our life feel like a mini vacation. Laughter and fun are refreshing for our soul, and releases stress. We cultivate laughter by watching clean comedy and we give one another humorous greeting cards and jokes. We share funny things our aging parents say. For example, as Bill’s dad aged, his ability to explain his needs in words evaporated, so as an engineer, he communicated using numbers. We could tell by his tone of voice “67” meant he was not a happy camper.
Set Healthy Routines and Rhythms
To keep up with our regular business and Love-Wise ministry, Bill set up an office in an RV on his parent’s property. This came in handy during the pandemic when the marina closed and Bill’s folks required extra care. For romance, our marina hosts weekly summer concerts, and we are known as “the couple that dances” on the deck of our boat.
Prioritize the health of your marriage and wellbeing
We found a jacuzzi for a deal and moved it to Bill’s folks’ property. To use for errands and picnics, we tuned up our bikes. And we found used kayaks to paddle to coffee or dinner dates. We maintained our weekly Marriage Meet Ups to dovetail schedules and plan our own necessary wellness workouts and health appointments. While giving care to Bill’s parents, we had to care for ourselves with adequate rest, a healthy diet, and plenty of exercise, movement, and fresh air. After all, if we neglected our own health we would be of little help for those who needed us. Purposefully caring for our own health and wellbeing is a gift we give to ourselves and to those we love.
Invest in Help
Quickly, it became obvious that to care for our marriage while caregiving for parents we needed a team. We hired occasional affordable professional nursing care to help us balance our other priorities including career and attending marriage enrichment events. We recruited siblings to cover for us so we could travel to see our kids and grandkids and visit Pam’s side of the family.
Tackle the Stress with Prayer and Worship
The strength of our now 43-year happy marriage is our reliance on prayer. We hold hands, pray, and kiss at each meal and bedtime. Bill and I take a daily sunset prayer walk. We play worship music, and continuing our speaking, coaching, and writing ministry. Through regular church attendance, we stay connected with our spiritual community.
Evaluate your progress and adjust
Caregiving is a season, so it helps to have regular getaways for empathetic listening, caring conversations, essential evaluation, and the ongoing need for flexibility and modifications. As Bill’s dad’s health declined, Bill provided hands on care around the clock. While reading As Your Parents Age by our friend, Cynthia Ruchti, the Lord highlighted Luke 9:48 (TLB), “Your care for others is the measure of your greatness.” My husband’s faithful caregiving for his parents is a picture of what will come. God gave us a glimpse of the tender loving care we will one day show to each other as our bodies enter our sunset years. Life consists of seasons of caregiving. We cared for and nurtured our children as they joined our family. When our children grew up, they launched into their own adult lives. Overseeing Bill’s parents is a different type of caregiving, with different dynamics. In both caregiving settings, the care of our marriage relationship remained a priority. Giving attention to our relationship with one another and with the Lord helps us meet challenges and grow closer, sweeter, and stronger.