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Caring for Aging Parents Can Stress Your Marriage

We are “baby-boomers.” Like some 80 million Americans, we were born during the period 1946-1964. We are that generation of Americans born to what former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw called, “The Greatest Generation.” Our parents survived the Great Depression, won the Second World War, and by most accounts, saved the world and preserved democracy in a post-war era.

There is no doubt; the free world owes a great debt of gratitude to the Greatest Generation. Frankly, it is hard to imagine where we would be without their sacrifices and their contributions to the creation of modern day America – to the creation of world we live in today. We owe our parents a lot; there is no doubt about that.

Like some of you, our parents are gone. Losing our respective parents was among the most difficult things we have had to cope with in our lives. But the undeniable truth of life is this – you will not get out of this world alive!

As we write this article for you today, we are fully cognizant that the parents of the baby-boomers are dying by the hundreds everyday. People get old and they die. There is nothing mysterious going on here. The realities of life tell us that the inevitable is lurking on the horizon. But the good news, our parents are living longer and longer. We get to have them around for a greater portion of our lives than our parents had of their parents.

Having aging parents who might live into their 80’s and 90’s (and beyond) can, however, bring a whole new set of challenges to your own marriage. You will recall the challenges associated with having children enter your own marriage. Nora Ephron once said that having children was “like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage!” Having your aging parents move back into your marriage, whether in your home or theirs, can have much the same effect.

When you take on the responsibility of caring for aging parents you will, without a doubt, take on some enormous stresses. The many challenges of caring for aging parents will at times put unbelievable strain on your marital relationship. Our research over the years suggests that there are a number of useful tips that you can use to not only deal with the stress of caregiving, but also strengthen your marriage at the same time.

Tips for Caregivers to Strengthen Your Marriage:

1. Talk openly with each other about feelings, emotions and stresses as they relate to your care of aging parents.
In times of stress the tendency is to keep everything bottled up inside or explode with the slightest disagreement. However, this approach will not work if you want your marriage to survive and thrive. In successful marriages there are No Sacred Cows. Simply speaking, happily married couples talk about everything. All subjects are fair game. They trust each other. They rely on each other’s good judgment. They depend upon each other for truth and straight talk. They share insights about everything—the good, the bad and the ugly. They are each other’s best friends.
2. Approach all financial challenges with teamwork and open communication.
Balancing the family budget requires teamwork, especially when the added burden of taking care of aging parents comes your way. It requires common goals. It most certainly requires family support. People in love support each other through thick and thin – through tough times and uncertainty. The unequivocal truth is this – if you don’t view your relationship as one requiring teamwork, all is lost. If you don’t work together to address head-on the economic challenges of your relationship with each other when caring for an aging parent, there is little hope of success.
3. Don’t blame each other when things get tough, as casting blame never solved a problem.
The blame game doesn’t work in love and marriage and it is destructive. There is a natural tendency in tough times to blame the one you love for your collective misfortune, but people in love don’t blame, castigate, or chastise each other in challenging times. The truth is, there usually is no one to blame for the situation. Someone has to take care of aging parents and the job just fell to you.
4. Don’t wallow in self-pity; it is a wasted emotion. No problem has ever been solved by feeling sorry for yourself or your situation. Successful couples grab “the bull by the horns” and work for solutions – recognizing that running a household is not easy. Making a family work is, clearly, difficult even in the best of times and even more challenging when you are the caregiver for an aging parent.
5. Make a concerted effort to keep the flame of your love affair alive with each other everyday. Can you rattle off a list of activities, topics and places you and your spouse include in your personal book of fun and romance? Have you found what clears your mind and gives you an unobstructed view of your world together? What type of priority do you place on making time for fun and romance with each other in your hectic lives? If you cannot answer these questions easily, you need to start today with carving out time to have a romantic date with each other, bring home flowers, get a hotel room, go for a long walk together, drink a bottle of wine watching the sunset, write a love note, and snuggle in bed a little longer in the morning.
6. Enhance your love relationship by providing each other occasional time for privacy and aloneness. The recognition of the absolute need for privacy and aloneness is, in our judgment after analyzing hundreds of interviews, critical to successful marriages. The amount of time available to satisfy these two needs varies from one marriage to another and from one marriage partner to another, and can increase during times of stress. We live such hectic lives at work, at home and when caring for aging parents that the time to be alone with our own thoughts is paramount to our ability to engage in any meaningful communication with each other. The quality of communication can only be enhanced between the two of you after refreshing your mind and spirit with alone time. You have to belong to yourself before you can belong to others.
7. Remember that the “Simple Things Matter” in marriage and they need to be practiced each day.
Twenty-five years of research on successful love and marriage has taught us many things, but first and foremost – no love has blossomed or been sustained without doing the “simple things.” Big things don’t matter until your relationship has mastered the art of doing the simple things day in and day out in your relationship with another human being whom you purport to love. Too often when we are engaged in stressful life altering situations such as caring for aging parents we forget to just do the “simple things” for the one we love the most. Try engaging in simple acts of kindness, always treating each other with courtesy, sharing a shower together, and hugging often. Trust us on this – if your relationship with the one you love has mastered the art of doing the simple things day in and day out, the likelihood of your relationship making it through the tough times are multiplied many times over. The point is, “simple things matter” and when you practice doing them, they accumulate. Simple acts of kindness add up.

Your parents cared for you. They took you through your tough times growing up and, like most parents, probably continued to provide support for you long after you left their home. Like many children of aging parents, it is now your time to return the favor. Your parents deserve your love, your understanding, and your support in their time of need. Rather than accept this responsibility as a challenge, take it on as an opportunity to get closer to your parents and deepen your love for them. They won’t be around forever. Enjoy them while you can. Simple Things Matter!

By Dr. Charles D. Schmitz and Dr. Elizabeth A. Schmitz