My husband, Mike, and I have been empty nesters since 1999. For years we went where we wanted to go, when we wanted to go. We traveled, ate out and spent a lot of time with friends. But after Dad passed away, Mom became increasingly dependent on us. This gradual slide into more responsibility for us marked a change in our mother-child relationship and challenges in my relationship with Mike.
Mike and I live in the same townhome complex as my mom, and since we eat meals together, she started leaving yellow sticky notes next to his placemat, a never-ending to-do list. But when he tells her, “I’ll do these on Saturday,” it means the stuff at our house won’t be done. And when I complain, Mike feels the tension of being pulled between the needs of our three-person family. Like me, he started feeling trapped.
When caring for an aging loved one, the question is often asked, “Whose needs come first?” This is my question, too. Should Mom come first, since she’s unable to care for herself? Or should my marriage come first?
“The relationship between husband and wife trumps everything else,” says Dr. Charles Schmitz, who with his wife, Elizabeth, authored Golden Anniversaries: The seven secrets of successful marriage. “If they continue to strengthen their relationship with each other, their marriage will survive the enormous challenges associated with caring for aging parents.”
It’s vital to keep your marriage a priority while caregiving. Experts agree that communication is key to reducing stress in your relationship while caring for an aging loved one. Too often, one or both spouses become overwhelmed and shut down. Here are some techniques Mike and I used to help us achieve a better balance in our relationship with Mom:
Mike decided that instead of being irritated by Mom’s lists, he’d face the frustration head on.
“How about I come over Saturday morning and get as much done on this list as possible?” he asked Mom. “The afternoon is all Jane’s. I have things to get done at home, too.”
“What if you don’t finish all my tasks?” Mom wanted to know.
Mike shrugged. “I’ll get to them when I can.”
Mom agreed. Since then, whenever there’s a yellow sticky note next to Mike’s placemat, he asks Mom for a deadline. “Does it need to be done today? This week? Before the end of the month?”
I wish I could say it’s solved the problem entirely. Nevertheless, Mike’s irritation and my resentment have mostly been resolved.
Mike and I eat dinner with Mom almost every night. When we told her that we wanted to have one night a week when we could sit across the table from each other, in our own home, by ourselves, she initially came unglued. It turns out that on the day we mentioned having Sunday dinner as a couple, Mom had visited with an old friend who was depressed and in pain. Mom had come home upset. We made our “announcement” at a bad time, and that affected my mother’s response. I’ve outlived my usefulness, she thought. Even my daughter doesn’t want me around. That’s what she heard, though that’s not what was said.
I’m thankful our relationship can withstand the occasional meltdown. We agreed that Saturday nights would be a date night for Mike and me. Sometimes we go to dinner and a movie, other times we rent a movie and eat dinner in front of the television. Mom has accepted this as the new routine.
As you learn to accept your unique caregiving role and negotiate boundaries, make sure that you set aside time to have fun with your spouse. Regular date nights and days away just to unwind will strengthen your marriage and keep your relationship in first place. Mike and I love going out for frozen yogurt. After a long day at work and then preparing dinner for Mom, we’ll look at each other and say, “Fro yo?” Sitting outside the yogurt shop away from the four walls of our house gives us a chance to talk without distraction because we agree to leave our cellphones in the car.
I’m grateful for the time my mom and I have had together. Sometimes my selfishness rears up and obscures my vision of what is important. But I know that by spending time with her (and by Mike helping her with the things she can’t do herself) we’ve brought joy into her life and ours.
Jane Daly is the author of The Caregiving Season, from which this article was adapted.