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Preserving Your Marriage While Caregiving

Spreading yourself too thin dilutes the attention you can devote not just to anyone in your family, but to everyone in it

My wife, Julie, and I were considering going to the movies on a wintry Sunday afternoon. When I suggested we bring along my frail, 83-year-old mother, Julie didn't exactly say no. But she didn't respond with a "Sure thing!" either. For a variety of reasons, we wound up not going to the movies that day. In all fairness, Julie has been more than a trouper during our years of providing care to my mother.

It was Julie's idea to move Mom from Florida to an apartment within a mile of our Pennsylvania home. That was in 2010, and Julie has made dinner for my mother every Sunday night since then. Like me, she has also taken my mother to countless medical appointments, supermarket runs, concerts, family events and, yes, movies. But there are times when three's a crowd.

Especially since we became empty nesters, Julie and I would like to enjoy some "unchaperoned" time together as a couple. In truth, Mom doesn't expect us to be her social directors; she understands that we have our own busy lives, and she neither pressures us nor complains.

Mature couple and elderly mother

Reaching out for help from relatives and professionals can help preserve caregivers' marriage. — Istock

The problem has been mostly me.

I sometimes feel guilty for neglecting my mother when I leave her out of our plans. I also feel guilty for imposing on my wife when I invite my mother to our house or on an outing.

As I've told many a family caregiving client, guilt is a cul-de-sac: It leads nowhere. But finding the right path forward — as a son and as a husband — has been hard. Even when I know I'm doing my best, I guiltily question whether it's good enough.

So in the interest of preserving your marriage while caring for a declining parent, here are some ideas I've found helpful in maintaining mine:

Lower your expectations

Though we all play multiple roles in a family — you may be a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a child and a relative simultaneously — you can never be all things to every family member. Accept that! Even when the care of an aging parent is pressing, it can't become all-consuming without shortchanging your other family bonds. For example, I've had to learn to balance my efforts for my mother with my responsibilities to my wife and children. This means facing up to the fact that spreading myself too thin dilutes the attention I can devote not just to anyone in my family, but to everyone in it.

Performing conscientiously and adequately — even if imperfectly — has had to become good enough for me.

Seek consensus

We all feel entitled to have our needs fairly met, but fairness among family members is a matter of opinion — and sometimes disagreement. I try to talk openly with both my wife and my mother about the constraints on my time and energy. I've tried to establish a running dialogue in which all of us feel heard, and a spirit of negotiation and compromise holds. When Julie and Mom feel I'm taking their needs into account, they're likelier to forgive my shortcomings.

Parents matter — but spouses are paramount

Driving my mother to yet another medical test, taking her to the ER when she's fallen again — isn't it easy to get swept up in the "tyranny of the urgent"? But as important as my mother's well-being is to me, I didn't marry her. My wife is the person with whom I've chosen to spend the rest of my life — presumably long after my mother is gone. That means I must carve out time for Julie and me to enjoy each other's company, but also to solve the everyday problems that arise in the course of our shared lives. So when I find myself "de-escalating" my mother's less-urgent needs to focus on Julie, I try to recall that that's OK: A husband and wife in sync make a better support team for an aging parent.

Say yes to help

Reaching out for help to other relatives and professionals has been crucial for preserving my marriage. For the last two summers, my cousin has invited my mother to stay with her for a week at a time, enabling Julie and me to get away on vacation without leaving my mother home alone.

My brother and his partner visit Mom for a weekend every few months — another welcome respite. Finally, a home health companion takes my mother to appointments when I'm in a time bind. These supports help me persevere as the caregiver I want to be — and as the husband I need to be.

Barry J. Jacobs is a clinical psychologist, family therapist and the author of the book The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers: Looking After Yourself and Your Family While Helping an Aging Parent (Guilford, 2006).

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