Keeping Relationships Strong While Caregiving: A True Story

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An estimated 54 million people in the U.S. are taking care of an elderly or chronically ill loved one, according to the National Caregiver's Association. Some care for a spouse, some for an aging parent. Jane Miller (we've changed her name to protect her family's privacy) cares for both, and she knows first-hand the stresses caregiving can place on a relationship.

About five years ago, Jane began traveling from her home in the Northeast to Florida, sometimes staying as long three months, to care for her 87-year-old mother, who has suffered several strokes. "I would stay with her and fix meals and take care of the house so she could live alone," explains Jane.

Double duty

After arriving home, Jane started noticing changes in Bob, her boyfriend of 15 years. He would forget conversations, which progressed to his becoming lost while driving around the corner. After an initial misdiagnosis, doctors determined that Bob had Stage 2 Alzheimer's disease.

"Some days, he just sits and stares," Jane says of Bob, who is no longer able to drive, but can complete simple tasks such as making a sandwich or using the microwave. Just leaving the house to run an errand requires Jane to leave written reminders for Bob, to let him know where she is. A list of contact numbers is always by the phone, and Jane even has to keep a key handy in case Bob accidentally locks himself into the bathroom.

"There are so many things you have to do that people don't give a second thought to," she muses.

About a year ago, the couple moved to a Florida retirement community so that Jane could care for her mother and her boyfriend at the same time.

Relationships are forever altered

While some stress is to be expected, Jane says caring for a parent has completely changed the relationship she has with her mother. "I love her dearly, but she's difficult to take care of," admits Jane. "We used to be very close. We'd dress alike and call each other sister."

These days, according to Jane, affection has been replaced with downright hostility. Jane admits she's considered walking away, but says deep down, she knows her conscience and faith would prohibit it.

"It used to be horrible. But that's the way life is, and you learn you have to let some things go. You can't carry all the monkeys on your back," she says.

Jane's pragmatic attitude comes from the multitude of caregiving workshops she's attended over the years. When she first became a caregiver, Jane went to as many as possible - attempting to soak up as much information as she could. She says sometimes the stress was unbearable. "You learn to let go. Life used to be very fragile, and I can't afford that because I didn't like the person I was becoming. People kept telling me, ‘You need time for yourself,' and I realized I really do. I won't be able to take care of Bob or my mom if I don't take care of myself."

Jane tries to have some alone time each morning to garden and read her Bible before starting her caregiving routine. Each month, she attends a caregiver support meeting and takes a ceramic class. "If I didn't have time alone, I'd be too stressed out," she says.

A therapist's perspective

"Clearly, care for parents or an ill spouse is extremely stressful," notes Karen Sherman, Ph.D., therapist, professor and author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, and Make It Last.

Not only is it important for caregivers to have alone time, they also need to be able to share their feelings through a support system. "Really let your feelings come out," she urges. "Don't feel guilty about expressing them. Don't keep emotions pent up."

Thankfully, Jane believes her boyfriend's illness has actually brought them closer together, although she's still coming to grips with Bob's slow deterioration. "He always tells me he loves me, and I tell him all the time I love him. I don't want him to forget that. At the end of the day, he always says ‘thank you.'"

While illness has strengthened the bond between Bob and Jane, it's not uncommon for the stress of caregiving to tear couples apart. Communication has to be a priority, according to Sherman.

"If the person you are caring for is your spouse, try to have open dialog about how this new situation has impacted your relationship for each of you. This will be bonding. Make adjustments in your activities so that you can still have time with one another," Sherman says.

Despite the stress and strain – both physically and emotionally - Jane wouldn't trade in her caregiving experience. "I never realized how long and lonely the walk would be, but it's well worth it," she says.

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7 Comments

I understand completely as I take care of my 80 year old mother with alzhiemers. I am an only child so the responsiblity falls completely on me. The only thing I would caution is be careful with letting your boyfriend use the microwave. My mother had used it for years to warm her coffee with no problem but the occasional over warming til it boiled over but last year she tried to warm something in a styroform container and it caught fire because she press the wrong numbers an forgot about it. I have purchased a new microwave with a child lock. I hate to have done that to her but its for her own safety.
I am sorry for your stresses. but being early dementa diagnosed at 47 now 55 with a 66 year old husband caretaking me, I would trade you if I could. You are fortunate. Dementia is horrifying.
Hello..
I TRULLY feel what this article is about, I'm in the same situation caring for my 78yrs old mother since 2010. She had a blood Glog stroke and she's paralyzed on her right side and on top of that she have demitia and Alzheimer's . I had to move here to take care of her since out of 5 girls no one else wants to take the responsibility or put their lives on hold to care for our mother so i took the responsibility. It's trully hard and stressing at times I find my self crying because I have to go through different mood swings from my mother here and there, especially I don't see any of my siblings willing to help or do their part so I have to hold my self strong and keep my faith in God as he will provide me with patience and strength to fulfill my duties for my mother for as long as I need to. I feel what Jane is going through I give her major blessings cause caring for a lone one is TRULLY the hardest job there is in this world and it takes a person with a loving heart , understanding, patience, to fulfill this job in life. I do take time for my self at times but just few hours once in a blue moon cause I can't leave my mother alone too long my dad him self is not in good health, but just having a few hours out the house kinda take away a bit of stress and frustration . I know everyone that is a care giver take it in a different way but for me , no matter how hard it is caring for my mother or dealing with my siblins for not doing their part, I have peace in my heart and mind cause I'm giving back to my mother what she have given me through out my life it's not much but it's the best I can do for her for giving me life and rasining me and my siblings. I wish upon all the care givers all the blessings May God give you all the strength and guide you all through it all. My life is on hold BUT it's worth it seeing my mother and being with her everyday cause once cause our love ones can't be replace in life. God bless everyone...
Leah....