Balancing Elder Care With Other Relationships

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First to go is the time, or even the energy and desire, to maintain friendships. Even maintaining friendships that go back years can seem like just one more thing to do when a caregiver is so swamped with demands.

So, caregivers stop seeing friends, hence friends stop asking them to do anything fun. Friends get tired of being turned down. And caregivers forget that life was once fun. They are too busy giving care to everyone else to even notice the loss.

Then there are the children at home. I had two young sons when I started going through my two decades of elder care, seven elders total. One of my sons has multiple health issues. I believe I gave my sons as much attention and care as any mother could, but I was always torn. It seemed someone always needed me. A child was sick and an elder's personal alarm was set off. What should I do? How should I handle it?

Or I'd just be having fun with my sons, and I'd get called away on an emergency. My sons got used to me telling them that we had to stop what we were doing, be it playing music, reading or a craft, because I had to run to Grandma's and see what's wrong, since her personal alarm was set off. Or I had to meet the ambulance at the emergency room, because Grandpa fell at the nursing home and broke his arm. Or I needed to reschedule my uncle's doctor appointment, because he was had gotten the flu.

Certainly, it doesn't hurt children to know that elders need care, and children need to share their parents with the older generation. Likely, my kids had a little too much of that, but they survived. However, some children have much tougher issues than mine had to face. Some have grandparents with dementia living in their home, verbally or even physically abusing them. Or a single mom and her kids find it more economical to live with the grandparents, but the grandparents end up sucking up all of Mom's time. The parent – the caregiver to generations – can't see a way out, so the family stays. But the relationships with the children are damaged.

And then there are the marriages. I hear from many caregivers who have supportive spouses, but I also hear from many who do not. The spouse feels neglected. The spouse never liked the elder, and now that the elder needs a lot of care, the spouse becomes even more resentful. The stress in the marriage can be intolerable for both sides. Marriages can and do break, under the stress of caregiving.

How much do caregivers owe their aging parents? Do they owe their health, their financial future, their family relationships? Where does "honoring your parents" begin and end?

I don't believe anyone owes their own health, their marriage or their children's emotional well-being to the elder that raised them. In most cases, the elders, if they could think straight, wouldn't want that kind of sacrifice made for their benefit. However, often they've gotten to a point where they don't recognize what they are demanding of the caregiver, so they resent not getting every need met and make that resentment well known.

This is where caregivers must take a stand. They must look for outside resources such as their state aging services for some direction. They must learn to balance their love and their time, giving as much care as possible to the elder, yet making sure that they have time, patience and energy for their children, their spouse and even their friends. If they don't do this early on, breaking the pattern will become harder, though not impossible, as time passes.

Certainly, if the elder's life is coming to a close, the whole family should gather around in support. But if elder caregiving is a long-term situation, the caregiver should look for balance. She needs to set boundaries as far as the elder care goes. If she does not, all relationships that matter will be damaged, even the relationship with the elder. The caregiver who feels she has given up everything for everyone else will find that no one got what they needed. If the elder care situation sucks the life out of all other relationships, everyone loses.

Keep Caregiving From Ruining Your Other Relationships

In the 1970s, there were ongoing debates about whether a woman could balance a family with a career. The discussions centered on being a good wife, mother and employee. The question seldom posed, in those days, was how, besides being a wife, mother and career woman, could a woman also be a good daughter?

Today, we hear about the toll elder care takes on families as routinely as we heard the former arguments in the '70s. Adult children are being faced with choices (or seemingly, assignments) they never thought about before. They are raising children or teenagers and holding down a job, when suddenly they find that their aging parents need an ever-increasing amount of attention.

Why is elder care more of an issue now than in the past? For one thing, people are living longer than they used to and, often, they are not living with good health. Yes, we all love to point to the 93-year-old guy out there playing golf everyday, and these people exist. I know a couple of elders like that and they are a joy to behold.

However, many elders today are stroke survivors, or are suffering from diabetes, lung problems or dementia. Sometimes they have a combination of these ailments, and others, which likely would have caused death even a decade ago. Now, medical advances provide lifesaving options. Many of these people live – some even living fairly good quality lives – but they need assistance from family or paid attendants.

Another piece of the puzzle is that many people have chosen to have children at a later age, thus putting them in a position where they have young children and older parents at the same time. This can be a delightful combination, as long as the elders are reasonably healthy, but when they are not, the adult children of the elders, also parents of young children, can be faced with very difficult choices. These are the people now famously known as the Sandwich Generation.

Whatever the circumstances are that propel people into elder care, the problems that can come from it are myriad. All you have to do is visit the AgingCare.com online caregiver support forums and you'll quickly see that many caregivers, both men and women, find themselves feeling pulled in so many directions that they can no longer find their soul.

They fear for their own health – mental and physical – as they try to take care of the needs of three generations, the most demanding often being the elders. Caregiving for a sick elder, especially one with dementia, can become so all-consuming that the caregiver's other relationships suffer.

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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113 Comments

You know, after four years of this "situation" I am beginning to believe nursing homes are a good thing and there for a reason. One it is a paid service, it is responsive to the state and issues of health and welfare and hygiene and safety are of legal import and they are looking after clients, people they do not have a life long history of knowing. Whether you had a good child hood or a poor one, you have had (presumably) a lifetime with these people AND even if you love them and wish to care for them you can just be overwhelmed both with the often onerous, and constant tasks of careing for them as well as over loading on their company. If the relationship you had with this person was strained or abusive in your past, it really makes for a compounded mess of feelings of resentment, obligation, guilt and just bone weariness over the whole thing...
At a nursing home, they are a client, everyone is equal, there are standards of care and the comfort of distance. You may very well have a nurse at the home who loves the client but they won't have the emotionally loaded life history as well, clouding issues of care and the stresses it entails...
I do understand not wanting to "Throw away a loved one" as if that is what it is. The desire to not abandon Mother or Father to strangers...But I honestly wonder if that might, under all these other issues BE the best choice for many of us?...
When we have gotten to the point where we have sacrifced our time, our other relationships with children, spouse friends even other siblings, when we are literally wearing ourselves to shreds, working ourselves into sickness has it not gone too far?
"They took care of us..." Yes, when we were children...To the expense of all else? Did they run themselves into an early grave, dissolve partnerships, neglect their own health too look after us? Did they really? I don't see it. A child works it self into Your life and you adjust...care giving for an elderly parent or grandparent becomes your life and it consumes you bit by bit.
The article mentions friends slipping away, spouses threatening divorce, work suffering...That IS YOUR LIFE! It isn't even a good excuse to say "Well you can have a life later stop complaining.."...When? People do not have expiration dates stamped on them... Some people take on care-giving as a necessary for the time being that leaches away decades of their life...Well this is part of your life they say...No it becomes all of your life and somehow just because you are related by blood, it is allowed to and you are informed by some that you should not only Not feel angry, ripped off or confused... you should feel blessed to have the opportunity to waste away under the yoke of this extended period of a loved ones dying. A process that is becoming so common in the West with the "wonders of modern medicine", stretching the lifespan not only beyond use and health but beyond reason and sense...
Why wouldn't this be an upsetting, horrifying, isolating burden...We are not trained nurses, or therapists but we are expected to take on these positions, along with handling there business issues, scheduling their lives, driving them here and there to appointments, making sure they don't come to harm or harm themselves out of stubbornness or dementia issues...Caring for a once strong, competent loved one as if they are a recalcitrant child at the expense of every other human relationship in our lives....WHY!!!
If you have Guilt, Love, Family Loyalty, God Issues, Like to be dumped on by life, need to feel needed, don't trust anyone else to do it, fear the loved one feeling abandoned, Enjoy being stressed out and worked to death, or just feel it is you Duty to the loved one...You are better off than some...Though it doesn't lesson the work, it may ease the burden...But for some of us...I really think paying someone who is trained to give the correct care for the person in question is the way to go....
For me...Unfortunately it is not my decision to make...But I can tell you...For my mother, caring for her father falling under all those reasons above.......even she is starting to question this task she has taken on...And she loves her father...She has had only two months of what I have had to deal with for four years........and she....is really not sure about this anymore.....
there seems to be an inference it the husband is supportive, marriage is ok, no stress. but if husband is not supportive, lots of stress, marriage not ok. i am a husband who is supportive. we take care of wife's 88yr old mother with stage 6 dementia. past 18 months has significantly effected marriage relationship. care-giving is stressful, period. certainly supportive spouses help as well as supportive family members.. and it's not enough to extinguish stress. and care-giving also impacts one's health. there is not enough time in any one day to meet the needs, the basic needs of everyone involved.

one of the things which annoys me, are articles or comments of the " 6 easy steps to relief stress" etc. etc.

care-giving is demanding, challenging, rewarding, joyful, sad, energizing, fatiguing, it's all of life, turned up to a higher wattage. and the bulb stays on, until the care-giving is over.

respectfully, thomas
Thank you so much for these comments cmagnum. It is validating to read someone else's words on what I have already suspected. Because of all of this, I read the MEM book and another one on covert incest a few years back. It helped explain things and countered some of the frustrations I was feeling. At the time, though, I was coping fairly well and pretty resilient even when things became difficult. Now is a different story. I am run down and losing inner resources. My husband is in therapy but obviously they haven't gotten to the MEM issues. I just want now to be healthy and strong again as I now feel caught in a tide that is trying to pull me under with it. I would even like to see my husband again, without being in the constant company of his mother. Before we came here I kept the apartment we had lived in even after we had moved in. Obviously I couldn't afford to keep it after we moved here, so I gave it up. I am thinking maybe it is like that again now at the end of my caregiving journey. I could get my own place, and then see my husband outside of this mess. I do hope he sees the light but I also think it's not likely given he's immersed in the situation. I am also betting that an ultimatum would be futile.