“Dear, my mom is coming to live with us.”
Words like these mark the beginning of many caregiving journeys. Caring for a parent or an in-law while married has its own particular difficulties and advantages. Many people are walking this path, and many face the unique struggles this life situation brings. It is impossible to address in detail all of the aspects of this relationship dynamic in a short article. But as an introduction to this sometimes thorny issue, I offer the following eight important highlights as a starting point.
Be honest with yourself about the difficult nature of caregiving. Caregiving for a parent or in-law while married is not easy. Future difficulties in this type of caregiving journey often begin with the thought, “It will be fun to have Mom come live with us!” or even simply the assurance to oneself that it won’t be that bad. Yes, great good can be found in the caregiving experience, but this is often hard and good, not easy and good. You will be better prepared to face the difficult parts if in advance you face the reality that not every day will be wonderful.
Talk frankly with your spouse before saying “yes” to caregiving. Some caregiving needs come up suddenly–for example, when in the space of a moment a stroke or severe heart attack renders a person incapable of living independently. In such situations you have to make the best of a bad situation. But it is far better to have a discussion in advance about the future needs for a parent and what that will require of your marriage. Most of the frailties of old age don’t come on precipitously. We all see our parents decline in health as they age, and if we stop to think about it we realize in advance where this will end. This sort of thinking is unpleasant, so instead we often ignore the realities of aging until a crisis erupts. The sudden onset of the caregiving responsibility is hard on both parties in the marriage relationship, so discuss frankly the possibility before it becomes a necessity. Listen to what your spouse has to say. Caregiving ought to be an openly discussed life issue in society. The earlier it is discussed with your spouse the better.
Discuss who will carry the greater share of the caregiving duties. While it might be our desire to split the caregiving duties equally, in practice this almost never happens. Maybe the wife is a stay-at-home mom while the husband works. We all know who will do more of the caregiving in that situation. But even in a marriage situation where both spouses are retired and have an equal amount of available time, one person may be more capable of meeting certain needs. If this is not discussed in advance and throughout the caregiving process as the situation changes, then it is easy for resentment to develop. Don’t presume that it is no big deal for your wife to take care of your mother. This might seem obvious, but it is surprising how many people think something similar.
Make sure there is always open communication. For someone unfamiliar with the changing needs of caregiving, there can be a mistaken idea that if there is an advanced discussion then everything is settled. You talked about your mom’s needs with your wife, the two of you agreed on a plan of care, and everything is all set–right? Well, no. Situations change. Caregiving is dynamic, not static. The needs of the person receiving care change over time, as do the stresses and strains on individuals (and marriages). Make a special effort to make sure the lines of communication in your marriage always remain open. This is simply good marriage advice in every situation, but it is even more crucial when dealing with the difficulties of caregiving.
Listen and be patient. Although you love your mom or dad, your spouse may not feel exactly the same way. There may be some aspect of your parent that really grates on your spouse. Or maybe your parent doesn’t like your spouse and so is very disagreeable with your spouse while being pleasant with you. Listen to what your spouse tells you, and be patient. There is a natural tendency to want to defend our parents when their faults are brought to light, but sometimes the best thing to do is say, “You’re right. My mom can be very rude. I am sorry she is so rude to you.” Sometimes admitting that our parent is not the charming person we would like to think is the healthiest thing to do.
Always put your spouse first. Some caregiving situations are relatively smooth with only a few minor difficulties. However, some caregiving journeys are hard and lead to severe conflicts. Unfortunately, there are times when a sick parent will try to turn a child against the child’s spouse. Sometimes the well-being of your spouse comes into conflict with the the parent in your care. Always make sure your spouse knows that they come first. You married them. When both marriage partners feel that they are valued as they ought to be, it provides a solid foundation to work through whatever difficulties come with caregiving.
Laugh together and cry together. It is common for people who are dealing with the stress of caregiving to emotionally withdraw. Dad dying is a hard thing, and it might just feel easier to live in a bubble. Don’t. Shutting people out is never healthy, and it is particularly damaging to the marriage relationship. You live the good things of life with your spouse; live the hard things as well. Laughing and crying together through the hard times of caregiving will make your marriage stronger, deeper, and healthier. It will also improve your own inner life.
Remind each other of why it is worth it. Some caregiving roles last for only a brief period of time, while others continue for years. When caregiving becomes the long haul we can lose sight of why we chose to take this road. Show your love and support by intentionally encouraging one another. Let your spouse know you are there, remind them that you are in this together, remember that you will make it through together, and recall the good reasons why you both chose to walk this path.
Caregiving with a spouse can be hard, but it is a wonderful opportunity to grow and to show love. I am firmly convinced that we should not let the potentially hard things deter us from embracing our care for others. But it is vitally important that a married couple do it together–in conversation, in decision-making, in providing the tangible caregiving support, and in living the whole journey out. Only in following that path can a marriage come through caregiving richer, more vibrant, and more full of life.
I did not take my first journey as a caregiver as a married person. But now any future caregiving in my personal life will also involve my wife. And that is a great thing. My wife and I discussed the realities of caregiving within our future marriage before we were joined in union. Because of my past experience as a caregiver I feel it is highly likely that I will be involved in a family caregiving role again in the future. It was important to both of us that we saw life and loving in the same way. We talked about our views and feelings on caregiving, made sure we had the same perspective–we even discussed how a room we added on the ground floor of the house we are renovating can be converted into a bedroom for an elderly relative if the need arises. Even before we said “I do” we began planning for the future of caregiving. All of life–including marriage–can be viewed as a long path of continually giving and receiving care. I walked my last caregiving journey alone. If I am called to walk this road again I look forward to walking it with my wife. Two walking together can make this life so much fuller than one walking alone, and challenges are more easily faced hand-in-hand.