Column: Tips for Surviving and Thriving as a Caregiving Couple
Have you ever noticed that some challenges in life are more stressful and overwhelming on a marriage than others? I think you'll agree that caring for aging and ailing parents will typically fall into the former category. In today's column, you'll find some helpful tips from someone who has truly "been there — done that." Shelly Beach is an award-winning author of four caregiving books, including Ambushed by Grace: Help and Hope on the Caregiving Journey (Discovery House Publishers). She is also a national conference speaker and has authored six additional books.
According to a survey conducted by Caring.com, a popular Internet source for those caring for loved ones, 80 percent of caregivers report strain on their marriage. In fact, 25 percent of divorced baby boomers stated that caregiving played a role in the divorce.
The cost of caregiving is often underestimated.
In-home caregiving in particular, creates tension in finances, privacy, family dynamics, social and sexual freedom, roles, and a myriad of often unanticipated issues.
When my husband Dan and I were first married, we discussed the fact that we both were willing to care for parents in our home if the need arose. But we couldn't have anticipated that Dan's father and my mother would be almost simultaneously diagnosed with mental illnesses. While we were totally willing to undertake their care, we were also unprepared for caring for loved ones with mental illnesses. At the time, I was recovering from a neurological illness that had hospitalized me. The stress of caring for my mother in Michigan and my father-in-law in our Iowa home while teaching and writing was an enormous strain.
Although I'd agreed that having Norman in our home was the best decision, I soon fell into a victim mind-set. Dan had to work full-time to provide for our family and maintain critically needed health insurance.
So I took Norman to his medical appointments. And struggled to get him to take his meds in the morning. And to eat. I struggled to calm his anxieties and communicate with him. It became easy for me to blame Dan about "his" father. Communication in our home soon centered on Norman.
It became apparent that Dan and I needed practical help in caring for Norman, and counseling to help us learn better communication, relational, and caregiving skills.
Over the next eight years or so, we learned a few things that helped us immensely.
Communicate, communicate, communicate. >>
Talk frequently to avoid misunderstandings and resentment. We see things from distinctive perspective and often have different expectations.
Give freedom to express frustrations. Care giving is tough. Create time to express those matters while supporting one another.
Communicate in ways that move you toward goals. Make concrete suggestions. Ask for ways you can make improvements.
Keep your relationship the core of your communication. It's easy for caregiving to swallow up other priorities. Focus on your life as a couple as much as possible.
Seek out community resources.>>
Look for respite programs, support groups, in-home assistance opportunity, suggestions from friends and organizations. Start with your Area Agency on Aging to learn about programs and resources available in your area.
Consider counseling. A professional can help you sort through the complications and conflicts that are sure to arise and advise you on things like family dynamics and children, creating boundaries, and caring for yourself, among other things.
Ask siblings and other family members to provide financial help or respite. This could be sitting with your loved one on a scheduled basis, or coming once a year so you can get time away.
Find help online. Websites such as Caring.com provide a wide variety of resources, from legal advice to assistance finding supplemental care.
Make time for yourselves.>>
Schedule time for dates, getaways, and romance. Your house may no longer be a place to relax. As a caregiver, it can be the place where you experience your greatest stress. Dan and I bought a Harley and took frequent trips to help decompress from the stresses of managing mental illness in our home.
Find ways to connect with each other every day. Meet for lunch, carve out 30 minutes before bedtime, do the dishes together, call one another at work.
Celebrate the good moments. Caregiving has its rewards. Find ways to cherish them, remember them, and share them.
Plan for the unexpected.>>
Caregivers should always expect the unexpected. What may be the status quo for our loved one today may change tonight. Our ability to manage the stress of our responsibilities can also change quickly.
It's important to discuss alternative arrangements for our loved one before we face a crisis.
Research care facilities in your area.>>
Know which you prefer, the costs, qualifications, and waiting periods.
Talk with relatives and close friends about their willingness and ability to care for your loved one. Ask what length of stay they would be willing to commit to.
Ask your area Agency on Aging about respite programs. Our community provided respite vouchers for caregivers. Find out what's available in your area.
My heart goes out to any of you who find yourself in the position of having to care for elderly parents. While it certainly can be rewarding and, in my opinion, is the absolute right thing to do when needed, please give heed to the advice you just read. It is not selfish to take care of yourself, especially as this will help you function better in your caretaking role. You will be doing your parents a great disservice if you allow your attention to them to lead to the demise of your marriage.
You can hear more helpful advice from Shelly and her husband Dan when they will be my guests on TWOgether as ONE. Their interview is scheduled for 6 p.m. July 6 on KLJH 107.1FM.
Ron Price is the co-founder and executive director of the Four Corners Coalition for Marriage & Family, a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to strengthening and equipping marriages and families in the Four Corners area. He can be reached at 505-327-7870.