The Best Way to Support a Caregiving Spouse


People who marry learn quickly that they marry more than one person. They marry a family.

Sometimes that's wonderful. That simply means more people to care about and more people to care about you. Other times it's a challenge – or worse. Jokes about in-laws in some cases reflect reality.

Whatever your relationship with your spouse's family, as his or her parents age and some responsibility for aging parents creeps into your lives, you will likely be needed for emotional support, at the very least.

Ideally, you and your spouse will be part of a family team of caregivers for both sets of aging parents, supporting each other through it all. Sharing the joys and sorrows of family caregiving.

When one of the parents develops Alzheimer's, you and your spouse both learn about the disease and how to handle situations that arise. When another parent is hospitalized after a stroke, you support your spouse as he or she contributes to after care.

Unfortunately, families don't always run like a well trained team and caregiving while keeping relationships intact can be a challenge.

Problems arise because the mother-in-law who has developed Alzheimer's doesn't want her daughter-in-law near her, yet she wants her son by her side day and night. The exhausted son, who is trying to handle his mother's finances, do her yard work and manage her medical care argues with his mother constantly.

Do you, as his wife, fuel the fire, knowing that your mother-in-law was always difficult and is now more so? Or do you listen without judgment as he vents to you about how difficult his mother is, and then offer to help with other aspects of his life so he's not so stressed?

While the first approach may be human and could even briefly feel good as you let your resentment fuel your husband's anger, you're in this for the long haul. That means you support your husband by learning about his mother's disease.

You sit with him and tell him that you understand why he feels angry at his "impossible" mother. Yet, you temper your agreement that he has a right to be angry by assuring him that having more information should help. You show him how much you can learn about Alzheimer's disease online or by seeking other resources for Alzheimer's caregivers.

As I mentioned above, in an ideal situation both you and your spouse would become caregivers in any way that works, supporting each other by doing what you do best, as you squeeze substantial elder care into your already busy lives.

Often, however, the best you can do is to lighten the load of your spouse in other areas and listen when he or she needs to vent.

You can research any diseases that your spouse's parents may have so you can pass on a condensed version of the facts. You can listen patiently as your spouse complains because siblings won't help out, agreeing that they should; and help your mate handle criticism from family. Then you can urge him or her to let the resentment go because it's just adding stress.

Assist your spouse in looking for other ways of getting help, even if it means hiring in-home caregivers or convincing the parents to move to assisted living. You can also take over more of the housework or yard care, without complaint, while your spouse deals with the often painfully exhausting situation of parent care.

This is a case of caring for the caregiver. Watching a parent disintegrate cognitively and physically is incredibly difficult. Watching your mate go through this stress is nearly as hard on you.

While you can't fix the situation, you can lighten the load. That's good for both of you.

Supporting a loved one is just that – offering support.

It's not grabbing the problem from your spouse and taking over because you don't think he or she can handle it. It's not nagging about having an increased work load at home because your spouse is trying to provide care to his or her parents. It's not whining, complaining or being needy.

This is a time when you can step up to the plate and show your spouse what you're made of and how much your marriage means to you.

It's a time to be a hero by stepping into the background and doing the invisible work so that your spouse can emotionally and physically handle the daily drain and frequent emergencies that accompany elder care.

This is a time to be a rock for your mate. If you're fortunate, the favor will be returned when it's your turn to become a family caregiver.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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It would be nice if this worked, Unfortunately, in many cases, including mine, it doesn't. My wife has children and grandchildren living close by that seem, not to know that she exists. They are 'too busy' with their own lives to even lift a telephone and ask how their Mom is.

We have accepted that this is the status quo and get along the best way we can.
Actually, I married an older man with 3 grown children. My DH was older than my parents. I am the 24/7 caregiver for my 96 yo DH and his children live 3 states away and no physical support. His siblings are also in their 90's and he is the eldest, so no support there either. I gave up worrying about anyone supporting me as caregiver. I do my best and I do it every day.
Thank you for this article.