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Keeping Your Love Alive While Caring for Aging Parents

Caring for an aging parent can take a very serious toll on your relationship with your spouse. What are the tips on how to help caregivers keep their love alive while caring for an aging parent(s)? What are the warning signs that your relationship is suffering? What can you do to keep the love alive?

A recent study conducted by found that “Eighty percent of baby boomers caring for an aging parent say that it has put a strain on their marriage.” The study went on to report “46% of baby boomers stated that care giving damaged their romantic relationships.” And finally, “25% of divorced baby boomers said care giving played a major role in their divorce.” Make no mistake about it – caring for an aging parent(s) can at times be stressful beyond belief. The negative impact on your marriage can be substantial! But the truth is, the damage can be prevented. Here are the Schmitz Dozen for the care and nurturing of your marriage while caring for aging parents:

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. 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, take off for the weekend, 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

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.

8. First and foremost, you and your spouse need to be fully informed about your parents health needs. What medicines do they need and when? Are there special dietary needs? Who is (are) their doctor(s). If necessary, secure a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. Many times, medical decisions have to be made in a timely manner. As the primary caregivers you and/or your spouse must often make medical decisions because your parents aren’t able to do so. Be fully informed about their health needs. Write down a schedule for their medicines. Keep a calendar of their appointments. Make notes about their special dietary needs. Having this vital information written down helps tremendously when you call on others from time to time to relieve you in the care of your parents. Do not leave the retrieval of this vital information to chance. That can be dangerous and not in the best interests of your parents.

9. Develop a network of support from family, friends, and relatives. You and your spouse do not have to do it all yourself. Ask your kids for help. Solicit support from aunts and uncles. Seek support from your neighbors. Don’t be shy about asking for help. You can’t do it alone. Don’t be deluded into thinking you can or even should. Your parents deserve the best support you and others can give them. Know this – allowing yourself or our spouse to break down over providing them quality care doesn’t help anyone – you or them!

10. Recognize that the time may very well come when you can no longer care for your parents by yourself and will have to turn to professional caregivers – perhaps an assisted-care or similar facility. Don’t consume yourself with guilt if that time comes. Someone else at this critical juncture in your parent’s life may very well provide the best care. And one final point – you may from time to time have to take your parents to an adult daycare facility so you can attend to appointments, go shopping, or simply catch a movie and dinner out with your spouse. It is perfectly natural for you to need time away from the duties of caring for mom and dad. Feeling guilty for doing something perfectly natural is another wasted emotion.

11. Understand that your parents for the most part have spent a lifetime of independence, but age and illness alters the playing field of life. Like most of us they assumed they would always be in charge of their own lives. They are accustomed to making their own decisions. Make no mistake about it, your parents will require great empathy from time to time and at times they will certainly try your patience. Don’t get mad. Don’t be upset with them. Simply recognize that much of how they feel and act is understandable given the fact that they were in control of their lives – oftentimes for decades. Put yourself in their shoes. Having emphatic understanding is critically important to the proper care of your parents and of yourself.

12. Staying healthy and happy, both physically and mentally, should be the highest priority of both you and your spouse. Engage in a daily exercise program. Eat healthy – lots of fruits and vegetables. Take your vitamins! Make sure you both take your own medications on the prescribed schedule. And don’t forget your annual physical exams. It is nearly impossible to take care of others when you don’t take of yourself.

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

Authors of Building a Love that Lasts: The Seven Surprising Secrets of Successful Marriage Winner of the INDIE Book Awards GOLD Medal for Best Relationship Book Winner of the 2009 Mom’s Choice Awards GOLD Medal for Most Outstanding Relationships and Marriage Book 2009 Nautilus (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2010) Available wherever books are sold.

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