Caring for aging parents can be a challenge. For example, when Janet and Charlie decided her aging mom needed to move in with them, they thought they had the perfect solution. They added a small apartment connected by a long hallway to their existing home — with a door at each end of the hallway to protect everyone’s privacy. Janet was glad she could knock on her mom’s door at any time to make sure everything was OK. What she overlooked was that her mom could knock on their door any time, also! Too many knocks chipped away at the couple’s privacy.
A couple may barely have time for a sigh of relief when the last child leaves home before realizing that they will now be the primary caregivers for an aging loved one. The couple may agree to have the aging parent move in for a variety of reasons, but tensions can build after the move-in date. Marriages may suffer as this new responsibility demands their ongoing attention. However, good communication and planning can help ease the transition.
Good caregiving requires communication
When a couple takes in an elderly parent or two, the spouse with the biological relationship most likely has the strongest sense of responsibility — and perhaps the greatest emotional response to so much togetherness. Kevin and his wife built a separate apartment onto their home for his parents. But he soon realized that the unhealthy relationship he had with his father earlier in life was only exacerbated by his dad’s dementia. It took sharing his frustrations with a trusted group of Christian men and venting to his understanding and patient wife before he could peacefully live with his dad’s hurtful comments.
Even when dementia isn’t a factor in the relationship, a child who has always felt incapable of living up to a parent’s expectations may discover that living together only makes those feelings worse. What helps? Honest and open communication. The son or daughter may find him- or herself saying, “Mom, I know you don’t approve of my bringing takeout home for dinner, but that’s how we sometimes handle meals in this household, so I hope you will learn to enjoy it.”
Clearly, caregiving couples must communicate often. Julie and her husband, Jeff, took her grandmother in to live with them, and most days went smoothly. “But there were communication issues between Jeff and me,” Julie says. “It wasn’t always easy staying on the same page. But then I came to realize that because she was my grandmother, not Jeff’s, he could be more objective. I learned to trust and value his insight into situations.”
Michelle Howe, in her book Caring for Our Aging Parents, wrote about tension that developed between her and her husband over their joint caregiving. “I still remember how my neck and shoulders ached after yet another tense discussion,” she wrote. “My husband had his strong convictions. I had mine.” Eventually they learned to “have a much healthier and more balanced perspective on caregiving. It involves respecting each other’s decisions, choices, perspectives and limitations — and doing so in a loving manner.”
Creating space in togetherness
Those who’ve taken in an aging parent say that creating the physical space may be the easiest aspect. An adult child’s room is converted to include a recliner and a TV for Grandpa, or a rec room becomes a senior suite. What’s harder is creating personal, emotional and even spiritual space for each member of the caregiving couple and the ones they care for.
Problems arise over the little things. If the TV is always too loud, the thermostat is frequently turned up to 80 or an early riser is disrupting others in the household, it’s time to develop house rules and boundaries together. Give-and-take between generations is necessary.
A husband or wife may resent the loss of couple time, leaving the other spouse squeezed between an aging parent who needs care and a discontented spouse. Kevin’s wife complained that every time she turned around, he was in his parents’ apartment checking up on them. Scheduling breakfast with his mom on Saturday mornings kept him more available to his wife the rest of the time — and created the necessary space between him and his parents.
Getting out and about — all of you
Caregiving couples shouldn’t sacrifice their social life to their living situation, either. If Grandma can’t be left alone, siblings, neighbors, adult children, church friends or trained caregivers may be enlisted to help.
Senior adults need their space, too. Adult daycare or senior centers offer many services and activities to give them a break from those sometimes bossy, hovering adult children with whom they live.
If Grandpa always has coffee with the same group of men on Wednesdays, work out a way to keep that going. If Grandma is in a bridge club, arrange for one of the other members to pick her up so she can stay in the game. Ask for help from faith communities to keep aging parents involved in church, if that’s been a part of their life.
Living together can also go more smoothly if everyone gets out of the house together occasionally. One couple took Grandma four-wheeling for the first time, and she loved it! Couples might think back to what activities their parents enjoyed while still living a more active life and plan accordingly. Why not take your mom to a matinee at her favorite theater, or take your dad to his favorite fishing hole. Such activities can be more enjoyable for the caregiving couple than they expect.
Making time for each other
An exhausted-looking woman at a dinner party was asked by another guest if she would be accompanying her husband on an upcoming business trip to New York. “No,” the woman sighed. “My mother lives with us.” The woman clearly missed the special times she previously spent traveling with her husband. She then went on to detail all the things she has to do for her mother on a daily basis, making it impossible for her to leave for more than a few hours.
Couples living with an aging parent often feel as if they can never take a real break — a weekend away or a vacation. If it’s truly impossible for the couple to get away together, hopefully that is only for a limited season. But if you find yourself in this situation, don’t give up on making your marriage the top priority; begin to explore possibilities that allow you to make time to connect with your spouse.
Utilizing family and friends
There may be options you haven’t yet considered. Siblings who don’t live nearby, for example, often feel guilty that so much of the caregiving is falling on the resident sibling and spouse. Might they be willing to come stay for a few days while you escape together? Likewise, adult children who are emotionally close to their grandparents may enjoy time with Grandma or Grandpa. Ask if they would be willing to spend a few days in residence.
Hiring caregiving help
Hiring someone from an in-home care service (vetted by Home Care Association of America, Private Duty Homecare Association or another governing organization) may feel like a last resort, but some couples find that this arrangement can actually work out beautifully. Interview the health-care workers in advance, trying them out for short visits to make sure the aging parent connects well with them. Then leave with peace of mind that everything important will be taken care of — and anything else can wait. If funding such help is a burden, consult with the Area Agency on Aging near you. Your family may qualify for a respite voucher just when you need respite most.
When you do get away, put caregiving issues on hold and talk about your life as a couple. You need a break, so make it count.
Nothing is ever truly settled when caring for an aging parent. Realities change, and living situations must be re-evaluated just as regularly as physical condition and mental acuity. Working through all the changes together — with a lot of prayer and compassion — can actually bring couples closer together. When the caregiving season ends, they will be ready to return to their life with renewed appreciation for each other — and for the aging parent they helped and honored together.