It makes sense that, as the senior population numbers climb, so does the percentage of people acting as caregivers for elderly parents or relatives. More than 65 million Americans – that’s almost a third of the population – provide at least 20 hours a week of care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aging parent. Almost 40% of those caregivers have either their elderly parents or children living with them. And for those who are married or partnered, those caregiving responsibilities are compounded by the demands of nurturing a healthy relationship.
While the needs of an elderly loved one can seem paramount over those of a younger, healthy spouse, it’s still so important for caregivers to try and carve out time for themselves and their partner to check in and stay connected. We’ve learned a great deal from families in our communities and through our own professional development about effective ways to address these conflicting responsibilities while keeping stress at a minimum.
First, communication is key. It can be so easy to rely on your relationship history to get you through a rough patch – but this tactic is shortsighted and potentially harmful, caution relationship experts. Don’t simply expect your partner to intuit what you’re thinking or read between the lines; it’s important to actually share what’s stressing you out – and that goes for both of you. Partners and spouses of caregivers can have their own frustrations at feeling overlooked, even abandoned – or at missing time together that’s been pushed aside. Even if you have to schedule a time to talk, make it a priority.
At the same time, hang on to realistic expectations in terms of what your partner is able to relate to and empathize with. While it’s important to have them as a sounding board, there are going to be times when they can’t fully share in your struggles; try to resist the destructive urge to blame or feel resentful. Instead, consider joining an online community or support group for back up and coping strategies from people in the trenches just like you.
No matter what, carve out time together. The needs of a sick parent or elderly person can sometimes seem to trump almost anything else; but nothing is more important than protecting your marriage or partnership, particularly during the stressful times when it’s especially vulnerable. Resurrect Friday date night, even if it means take-out and a movie. Meet for a quick lunch date to catch up; even do errands together if that’s all you can manage in a given week. But make sure you create opportunities for alone time whenever you can to protect this important relationship.
Finally, consider coming up with a back up plan. We’ve seen cases where the demands of caregiving become unsustainable for lots of reasons, ranging from the financial to the personal. Look into resources now that you could turn to quickly if you needed to – home health aid companies, senior centers, assisted living. Doing this research takes time that you might not have when circumstances force the issue, so make it a short-term priority. Or you may have siblings or relatives living nearby who could take over for you, either temporarily or permanently. Talk to them now, when you have the time to lay out responsibilities and expectations, so that you have someone ready to call on.
For more information and a list of helpful resources, head to Caring.com.