When you stood in front of family and friends and promised to love and honor your spouse through sickness and health, you probably weren’t thinking about how to make your marriage work while caring for an aging parent.
For many couples, however, caring for an aging parent will take center stage in their lives at some point. According to a 2020 AARP and National Alliance for Caregiving study, 54% of caregivers were married. The same study found more than one in every six Americans is caring for an adult aged 50 or older, which can create strain on a marriage or long-term relationship.
Relationship pressures from becoming a primary caregiver for an aging senior come in a variety of forms, including:
- Financial pressures from medical bills, loss of income due to the time needed to provide care, or the need to help with day-to-day expenses
- The physical toll of caring for someone who needs help with daily tasks, as well as from spreading yourself too thin trying to manage a family and an aging senior
- Time constraints resulting from added responsibilities
- The emotional consequences of not having enough time or energy to invest in your relationship
While all these pressures can place a strain on your relationship with your spouse or significant other, it’s the emotional consequences that can quickly lead your relationship to a place of no return. However, you can keep your relationship on track while still providing the love and care your aging loved one deserves.
Set your priorities
Caregiving can be all-consuming, but your relationship with your spouse or significant other needs to be a top priority in your mind. Reminding yourself of the importance of your relationship will help you set aside time to nurture it no matter how tired you may be or how much of an effort it will take to create time for your spouse.
“If you are good at setting priorities, you will be better prepared to decide on goals, and in so doing, manage your stress levels more effectively,” writes Jane Collingwood in PsychCentral. “As stress increases, we are often forced to prioritize our commitments and decide which things can be put to one side and which can’t.”
If you make your relationship with your spouse or significant other a priority, you’ll be less likely to simply set it aside when stress levels associated with caregiving arise.
One of the biggest issues between spouses providing care for an aging relative is a feeling of resentment—and that resentment can go both ways.
The spouse whose parent is in need of care may feel resentful they have to do the heavy lifting to care for their parent, while the other spouse can harbor resentment about the amount of time caregiving is taking away from their family unit.
The truth is there are no easy answers when it comes to making relationships work with the added stress of caring for an aging loved one—but effective communication is key.
There are no easy answers when it comes to making relationships work with the added stress of caring for an aging loved one—but effective communication is key.
Acknowledging feelings as they occur and not storing them up until they boil over is a good first step. Having a set time to discuss things with your spouse or significant other can help.
Choose a time you can sit down without distractions and discuss both everyday issues and any negative feelings that have occurred during the week. This will keep the lines of communication open and provide an outlet for working out any problems before they have a chance to fester.
“Touch base with each other on a regular basis and talk with your spouse about how he or she is feeling about this,” Eve Markowitz Preston, a psychologist in private practice, told AARP.
Make time for each other
When caregiving eats up all the time you used to spend with your spouse or significant other, it can be hard to keep a relationship going.
Figure out how to make time just to spend with each other, whether that’s a dinner out once a week or an afternoon spent playing your favorite sport, going to the movies or taking a cooking class. Simply spending time together will encourage emotional closeness that may be lacking in your day-to-day interactions.
If your loved one needs constant care, seek out supportive friends or family members to give you a break, or consider hiring a home health aide to come in once a week or a couple of times a month.
Don’t hesitate to get help
If your caregiving responsibilities are negatively impacting your relationship with your spouse or significant other, don’t be afraid to get some help navigating this new life situation.
Adding caregiving responsibilities to an already full plate that may include a full-time job and young children can be exhausting, confusing and frustrating. It may help to have a neutral person like a counselor or pastor to help you walk through the changes these responsibilities bring to your relationship.
Many employee assistance programs offer free counseling sessions, and faith communities may also offer free counseling services. You don’t have to struggle through this new stage in your life and relationship alone.
As you and your spouse or significant other navigate the altered state of your relationship created by caregiving responsibilities, remember to offer each other plenty of grace. Neither of you probably expected to be in this situation, and it will take a while to adjust to a new way of doing things.
Remain open and honest with each other and assume the best of each other. While the way you approach the day-to-day activities of life may need to change, the heart of your relationship can remain the same.