For many of us, providing care for our elderly family members means not only caring for our own aging parents, but caring for our in-laws, as well. Some of us do this naturally, as our in-laws are our spouse's parents and our children's grandparents. Often we love them, or at least like them. Sometimes, we don't. Is it our responsibility to care for our aging in-laws no matter how we feel about them? Or what if you are no longer married – the in-laws are still your children's grandparents. What is your obligation then?

Cindy Laverty of the Care Company provided care for her former in-laws, long after her divorce. Laverty explained, "As odd as it might sound, I cared for my ex-husband's parents for six years - 15 years after our divorce. I had a relationship mostly with my former father-in-law because he was a wonderful grandfather to my daughter. It was a journey that I was wholly unprepared for, but I learned more about myself during those six years than I ever could have imagined."

Is Laverty unusual? Perhaps voluntarily providing care for her former in-laws 15 years after her divorce really was unusual, but married or not, many people provide care for their spouse's parents.

Women seem to do bulk of caregiving for in-laws, too

I hear mostly from women wondering what their responsibilities are with aging in-laws. Of course, if people are in a solid marriage, caring for their in-laws would be natural, at least to a point. But where are the men in this story? Some of them are pulling their own weight, of course, but many are not. They just aren't used to providing hands-on care to needy people, so the care of their own parents often falls on the wife – or ex-wife.

Every family is different, but in parent care we often see a gender division. The man handles the financial aspects of their parents' care. They make the big decisions. They may even mow the lawn or provide other care for their parents, if the parents still live in their own home. The men are (sometimes) willing to do their "guy jobs." But hands-on care, especially for, say, their wife's parents? Not so much. Even for their own parents, when it comes to the more intimate chores, it's still generally the women who are in charge, willingly or not. Some grow to resent it.

How can we change attitudes of some men resistant to caring for their parents?

  • Providing care isn't something we can go back and do if we later regret our choice to avoid the hard parts. So, encouraging people to think about the care they provide – or don't provide – is generally wise. Remind your spouse that you expect to feel good about the care you've provided once his parents are gone. Tell him that you'd like him to feel that type of reward, as well.
  • Try to convince him that it's not "unmanly" to spoon feed their mother or help their dad bathe. It's simply caring.
  • Remind him (again) that you also work, whether it's from home or an office, and that you can't and shouldn't have to handle the full load of hands-on care.

The bottom line

If, like Laverty, you love your in-laws and appreciate their role as grandparents to your children, then providing whatever care you are able to provide would be natural. Yes, your husband – their son – should be doing his share (or your wife if that's the case). Ultimately, it's your decision about how much you do and he'll need to figure out the rest.

If you have a poor relationship with your in-laws, and your husband still insists that you, as a couple, provide care, then, again, you must decide what you can and cannot do. Perhaps you can tell him you'll do their grocery shopping or some other chores, but let him know that they are his parents and he is in charge. You need to set your own boundaries.

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There's no reason why you should give up your life to care for your in-laws, whether or not you like them. But for the sake of your marriage, if you are still married, then you should try to help in some way. If you are no longer married, then it's totally up to you. If there are children of any age from the marriage, you still may want to at least do a token amount. If there are no children, then it depends on your own relationship with the elders and your own inclination.

No one is suggesting that you ignore that fact that your aging in-laws need help. The question is how much do you personally provide? This will be different for every family, just as parent care is different. The only rules regarding your contribution are the ones you make.