Back when you were in high school, you likely found that bringing your new love home to meet your parents was a nerve-wracking experience. Mom and Dad were bound to embarrass you in some way, but you got through the awkwardness because you had to.
Now fast forward a couple of decades. Who knew that you’d be facing that same scenario all over again? This time, however, you and your parents are both much older and yet the complications have somehow multiplied when it comes to introducing Mom and Dad to new people—especially a new love interest.
Perhaps your parents have dementia and have lost their filter and all concept of social graces. Maybe they are argumentative and controlling and demand 100 percent of your time and attention. Many seniors struggle to accept change, so the thought of you, their primary caregiver, pursuing other interests and relationships may be a deeply troubling possibility. In an attempt to maintain the status quo, they might remind you of your past failed relationships and advise that you should leave well enough alone at your age. The list of challenges that caregivers face when trying to reenter the dating scene goes on and on…
On top of your parents’ protests, your time is so limited that you can hardly squeeze your own doctor’s appointments into your schedule or enjoy a nice bath without interruption. How does one date under these circumstances? And if you are successful in meeting someone special, how do you find the time and energy to nurture a new relationship while caring for your parents and avoiding their wrath? A few simple tips can help you mentally prepare for this undertaking.
Introducing Your Date to Your Aging Parents
I rarely compare elder care to child care, because I find that comparison demeaning to seniors, but there are times when it’s nearly unavoidable. This is one of those times. I can’t help but liken handling these types of introductions to the way a single mother with young kids might handle dating. Many women choose not to introduce potential partners to their children until there is some degree of certainty that the relationship is stable and there is a chance for long-term success. Kids are vulnerable and rely on their parents for love and care, so introducing a new person into the family causes a serious shift in dynamics.
Similarly, your aging parents are at a vulnerable point in their lives where they rely on you for a great deal. They could easily jump to the conclusion that you will not have time for them if you begin focusing on your love life. Therefore, I’d advise caregivers to refrain from bringing home every date they go on. Instead, give it some time to get to know a prospective partner before taking the plunge with a whole family introduction.
Educate Your Date About Caregiving
After several dates, if you feel that it’s time for your new boyfriend or girlfriend to meet your parents, then see if they are willing to learn about your parents’ illnesses and what their care entails. Ideally, you will have covered some of this briefly on your first couple of dates as you got to know one another.
For example, is Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia a factor? Talk with your new beau about some of the unusual symptoms that dementia causes and offer to share some information on the disease with them. It doesn’t matter if caregiving isn’t an uplifting topic that’s easy to discuss. If the person you are dating shows little interest in your life as a caregiver or will not make any effort to understand your situation, or that of your parents, consider this a red flag. Caregiving is a huge part of your life, and this role should be respected by someone who truly cares about you.
At the same time, don’t expect this new person in your life to “get it” right away. Even if they have had caregiving experience themselves, individual situations differ greatly. Yours may be way too complicated or intense for someone on the outside to fully grasp after only a few conversations. For example, handling a parent who has lost all social inhibition and often makes extremely rude comments is hard enough for you to cope with and you’ve likely had lots of time to practice and build up a thick skin. You can’t expect your new love to take this and other difficult behaviors in stride. But, as long as they are willing to learn and support you as you grow together, you may have found a winner. Give them time to learn the ropes.
You Deserve a Life Outside of Caregiving
As a caregiver, you are, well, a caring individual. You have far more responsibilities on your plate than the average person. Whether you embarked on this journey out of love or a sense of duty, you have taken on a difficult role at great personal cost. Either way, you may feel that moving forward with a life of your own is selfish. It’s not. You are a human being who deserves love and support from a partner in life, if that is what you desire.
When a caregiver begins focusing on their own life and happiness again, it’s true that everyone involved must make adjustments. If you’re hoping to enjoy more free time to date and participate in self-care, then you’ll probably need to arrange respite care with outside providers like an in-home care company or an adult day care center. This will be a huge adjustment for your parent(s), but you deserve this and shouldn’t feel guilty.
Of course, your parents are likely to worry about this shift in your priorities. Be sure to let them know that you aren’t abandoning them. Explain that your goal is to live a healthier, happier, more balanced life. Dating can be a step in that direction. However, don’t make promises that you can’t keep, like never considering senior housing as an option for their care. Even if all goes well and you find a partner you love and want to spend your life with, you’ll need time and space to build a relationship with this person. Meanwhile, your parents’ needs will only increase as they get older. Being realistic and forthcoming about your intentions and the possible ramifications is key. If your parents are still cognitively sound and truly want the best for you, then they should support you in this endeavor.
Drop the Guilt
Know that your parents may try to make you feel guilty about your decision to begin dating again. If this happens, try detaching in a loving manner. Seniors who are afraid of change may become controlling and overwhelmingly negative. You must understand that you aren’t responsible for their feelings. Reaffirm your love and commitment to them but be aware that they may deliberately push your buttons to talk you out of following through with your plan.
Not unlike young children, your parents may test the waters to see if a tantrum will keep you from making any changes in your life. Don’t buy into it. Ensure they are well cared for in your absence and then enjoy spending time meeting new people and pursuing a new relationship. Being a caregiver doesn’t eliminate your personal needs and it shouldn’t take priority over your happiness. You deserve to feel loved and fulfilled as much as any other human being. If dating is something that you want to do, then don’t shortchange yourself. It won’t be easy, but you owe it to yourself to seek out the love, support and companionship you deserve.