By Marlo Sollitto
Caring for an aging parent can be stressful beyond belief. According to an article published in the American Journal of Nursing, “Caregiving has all the features of a chronic stress experience: It creates physical and psychological strain over extended periods of time, is accompanied by high levels of unpredictability and uncontrollability, has the capacity to create secondary stress in multiple life domains such as work and family relationships, and frequently requires high levels of vigilance.”
It only makes sense that this strain can take a serious toll on caregivers’ relationships with their significant others. Understanding the impact this role has on you and your spouse is the first step in ensuring your marriage remains a top priority even in the most challenging of times.
How Caregiving Affects Marriage
Countless members of the Caregiver Forum on Agingcare.com have asked questions and participated in discussions about balancing marriage, stress, caring for aging parents and caring for themselves. Money, time, energy and patience are typically in short supply for these hardworking folks. After providing quality care for their loved ones, there is often little left over to “give” to other important people in their lives. In fact, family caregivers are stretched so thin that self-care is frequently put on the back burner.
This extended absence of physical and emotional self-care is a recipe for caregiver burnout. Common signs of caregiver burnout include depression, anxiety, mood swings, withdrawal and physical health issues like fatigue, headaches and compromised immune function. Burnout not only harms caregivers but also impacts their relationships with immediate family members like spouses and even children.
When a family caregiver’s own well-being is prioritized behind everyone else’s, resentment is bound to set in. On the other hand, spouses often feel that caregiving has come to dominate day-to-day life, upending long-standing routines and dynamics. If both spouses are involved in providing care, both can wind up neglecting themselves and their relationship with each other. Likewise, if one spouse is primary caregiver for an aging parent and feeling unsupported by their partner, resentment may build from both parties.
As caregiver stress increases, tension mounts and healthy communication dwindles. New or longstanding weaknesses in a marriage may emerge under these difficult circumstances. A couple may feel they are arguing more, emotionally distant, physically disconnected, and struggling to cope with everyday decisions as well as those related to a parent’s care needs. It’s best to act on these warning signs early on before both spouses wind up feeling like they’re being shortchanged.
Addressing and solving marital problems can be a considerable undertaking, even for those who aren’t already overwhelmed with caregiving responsibilities. It is crucial for you and your spouse to examine the current situation and the extent to which your wants and needs are being met in your marriage and life as a whole. The next step is to recognize where you both can make changes to better accommodate these goals.
Tips for Balancing Marriage and Caring for Aging Parents
While the things necessary for maintaining a strong marriage may seem obvious, it is easy for them to fall by the wayside when life gets too hectic. This is normal to an extent, but neglecting a relationship over the long term often results in irreparable damage and can lead to divorce. Every couple could use a refresher from time to time, especially those who are also juggling caring for aging parents. Use these tips to keep your marriage strong and prevent caregiver burnout from overwhelming both of you.
- Don’t procrastinate.
When you are stressed, it can seem like there is never time to talk about your feelings, so you keep them bottled up inside. But, when things go overlooked for too long, they tend to explode. Timing is important when tackling prickly subjects, but avoid putting off discussions. You might have too many doctor’s appointments to accompany your parent to this week, but next week the kids might get sick. Before you know it, “next week” never comes. If you struggle with finding the right time to have conversations, make a standing appointment for you and your significant other to check in with each other. It sounds silly, but it will help ensure you communicate regularly and avoid blow-ups.
- No topic is off-limits.
Married couples must be able to talk about everything. Trust each other. Talk about whatever is on your mind and allow your spouse do the same without judgment. All subjects are fair game—the good, the bad and the ugly.
- Remember to listen.
When you’re having a conversation, make sure you aren’t the one doing all the talking and avoid interrupting your spouse. Be sure to really listen to what they are saying. Sometimes it’s helpful to repeat back what they say in your own words to ensure there is no confusion or misinterpretation.
- Don’t wallow in self-pity.
No problem has ever been solved by feeling sorry for yourself or your situation. The old saying rings true: happiness comes from looking at the glass half full, rather than half empty. In reality, this is easy to say, but much harder to put into practice. It takes a conscious effort to examine your thoughts and turn negative voices into positive ones. Constant negativity can sap the energy and lightheartedness out of any relationship, even the most important one: the relationship you have with yourself. Mindfulness exercises, self-help books and therapy can help you practice gratitude and learn to view life through a more positive lens.
- Don’t cast blame.
The blame game is very destructive. There is a natural tendency to place blame on those closest to you during trying times, but truthfully there is usually no one person to blame for this situation. When it comes to caregiving, someone has to take care of aging parents. Out of all the options available for elder care, the job fell to you. Rather than casting blame, find ways to work as a team with your spouse and others to improve your predicament.
- Practice teamwork.
When you first fell in love, you felt it was the two of you against the world. You had each other’s back. Remember your vows to support each other through thick and thin, through tough times and uncertainty. This teamwork concept holds true now more than ever and applies to the rest of the family as well. If you have kids and they are old enough to do chores, make sure they get done. Everyone should contribute and help pick up slack that occurs from time to time. If your spouse feels that you two rarely get quality time together anymore, clarify that their assistance with a few tasks would free up some time for you to reconnect. Making a family work is difficult even in the best circumstances, and it becomes more challenging when caregiving is thrown into the mix. Remember, many hands make light work. The more help you have, the easier it will be to ensure the household is running smoothly and the more likely you are to have free time for other tasks.
- Give each other space.
Everyone needs some alone time. Allocate some time in your schedule to be alone with your thoughts and refresh your spirit—and allow your spouse to do the same. If you aren’t able to leave the house for your “me time,” find your own solitary space within the home. “Man caves” and “she sheds” have become popular for a reason. Use the office, the den, the back porch, your bathtub, even the basement and turn it into your own personal retreat. You must take care of yourself before you can take care of others. This applies in marriage, parenting and caregiving.
- Keep the flame alive.
Make time for fun and romance together, and make it a top priority. Couples should be able to share the burden of tough times together, but it is equally important to spend some carefree time enjoying each other’s company. Carve out time for a date night, a long walk together or just a few extra minutes of snuggling in bed in the morning. If your parent’s care needs make such an arrangement seem impossible, then bring in back-up. If friends or family can’t or won’t help, seek respite from professional caregivers—even if it’s just for a couple of hours here and there. In-home care and adult day care services are both viable options. While it may be difficult to pay for respite, the money is well spent if it allows you to nurture your marriage.
- Keep up the simple things.
Simple, loving gestures matter a great deal in a marriage. Try to do a small act of kindness or love every day. Cook your spouse’s favorite dinner, acknowledge them for something they’ve done, or compliment them to let them know how much you care. Yes, it takes some effort to establish the habit, but the payoff is worth it.
- Build a support network.
You and your spouse do not have to tackle caregiving on your own. Ask for support from family and friends. Seek help from your neighbors. Consider hiring professional assistance. Don’t be shy about requesting help; you can’t do it alone.
- Stay healthy.
Taking steps to maintain your mental and physical health is crucial for caregivers. Exercise as often as you can, eat healthy, keep your stress levels in check and don’t forget your annual doctor’s appointments. Ideally, your spouse should support you in this endeavor and make their own health a priority as well. Being proactive about your health will ensure you feel your best and are prepared to withstand all the challenges that life and caregiving may throw your way.
Keep in mind that any disruption in a longstanding family pattern can be difficult for everyone to adjust to. It will take time to settle into the new normal and make changes to get it “right.” Patience and understanding are crucial for working through this difficult situation together. Just remember to make yourself, your spouse and your children a priority while caregiving. If you need help communicating and keeping these priorities straight, professional counseling—individually and/or as a couple—can be incredibly beneficial.