Work/Life is focusing on relationships during the month of February. As the Eldercare Program Manager, I often work with individuals who are caregivers – trying to balance the caregiving role with their spouse/significant other relationship. While some who provide care to their spouse feel the experience strengthens the bond between them, it isn’t uncommon for the caregiver to feel resentment, anger, stress, or other frustrations. These feelings typically occur when either the caregiver feels as though the relationship has become one-sided, or the care recipient may worry that they are becoming a burden. Even the most steadfast of relationships can be tested by the many demands of caregiving. A marriage survey conducted by Caring.com found that 80% of respondents said that caregiving put a strain on their relationship or marriage. According to the survey, three factors in particular put caregivers at risk for marital strain:
- Holding down a job on top of caregiving duties
- Providing financial assistance to an aging relative
- Caring for an aging relative in the home
So, when faced with the array of overwhelming needs while caregiving, how can caregivers protect, and even enhance, their relationships? As I am sure you can imagine, there are no simple solutions. However, there are some things you can do to nurture and protect your relationship while at the same time providing care for a parent or other family member.
Seek help. It is vital that caregivers seek support to ease the burden, both on themselves and on their partners. There are many avenues of support available, both practical and emotional. Here are a few suggestions:
- Respite – either asking a sibling or other family member to take over caregiving for a weekend so you and your partner can get away, or accessing a resource such as home care or adult day care so that you can have some relief from caregiving duties.
- Build a network. When friends, neighbors, and church community ask “What can I do” – try to have a list of practical tasks (anything from picking up groceries, driving your parent to a medical appointment, or coming to the house and spending some time playing cards with your family member)
Keep romance alive. It’s important to make your relationship a priority. Try to find small, regular moments for you and your partner to connect. This can be making time for morning coffee together, a special show that you make time to watch, or an evening walk with the dog. Small, caring gestures are known as ‘filling the well’ – and go a long way towards enhancing the overall strength of your relationship. When I presented this question to our caregiver support group, one member reports “My husband and I both like to talk walks, so I look for opportunities to take walks around the neighborhood with him (just the two of us). We do that at least once a week, but often a couple of times weekly. Come to think of it, we sometimes make dinner together, over a glass of wine. And we talk a lot – about everything, including moms”.
Find humor. Despite the challenges that caregiving presents, there are often unexpected moments of humor. We spent many hours at the assisted living with my mother in law, often playing cards. As her eyesight declined, these games were often punctuated by her colorful comments as we attempted to bring in more and more lamps in order for her to see the cards, and we often ended our time wiping tears of laughter brought on by her hilarious commentary.
Communicate. “Too often spouses fail to reach out to one another and talk about the many problems and conflicting feelings that arise in caregiving situations”, says Drs. Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz, authors of the book Golden Anniversaries: The Seven Secrets of Successful Marriage. It will often feel as though things are too busy to sit down and have a conversation, but it is so important to make time to talk with your partner. If possible, schedule a regular time to talk, both about practical matters, or just to express feelings about current circumstances (i.e. vent).
Teamwork. It’s important to know that, as a couple, you have each other’s back and can rely on one another during challenging times. Recognize each other strengths and assign duties accordingly – and tag team whenever possible!