When people get married, they quickly learn that they’ve made a commitment to more than one person. Essentially, you marry your spouse’s whole family. Sometimes in-laws are a wonderful addition. Other times, they can be a challenge or a source of tension in a marriage.

Regardless of the nature of your relationship with your spouse’s family, as your in-laws age, it is likely that more and more responsibility for their well-being will creep into your lives. As your husband or wife takes on the role of family caregiver, they will need your emotional support at the very least.

Ideally, you and your spouse are part of a team of family members working together to support both sets of aging parents and sharing the joys and sorrows of family caregiving. But, families don’t always run like a well-oiled machine, especially when a loved one’s health is in jeopardy and emotions are running high. Keeping relationships intact while caregiving can be a serious challenge, which is why it’s so important for friends, siblings, and spouses to support one another throughout this journey.

Most people have never provided care for an aging or ill loved one before, so it can be difficult to know how to truly help someone who’s in this role. These tips can guide you through unfamiliar territory with your spouse and in-laws.

Do Your Research

Learning about the medical issues and care tasks your spouse is dealing with will be beneficial for everyone. This fundamental information will make you an excellent sounding board when dilemmas arise and care decisions must be made. Being knowledgeable about the situation means that you can offer constructive and well-informed suggestions instead of mere speculation.

Your spouse should absolutely put in the effort to learn about these topics as well, but two heads are better than one. Even if you are very close with the family member he or she is caring for, it’s likely that you bring some degree of objectivity to the table, which is invaluable when emotions are running high. Taking the time to educate yourself on what your spouse and their family are going through is a powerful gesture of solidarity. It says, “We’re in this together and I’m investing the time and effort to ensure I understand the situation and can provide concrete support.”

Furthermore, gaining an understanding of difficult conditions like dementia, stroke, and urinary tract infections (UTIs) will help you avoid misconstruing symptoms as intentional slights or manipulation. When cognitive function is impaired, new and unusual behaviors and attitudes can develop and have a serious impact on relationships.

For example, say your father-in-law is making nasty remarks to you. If you weren’t aware that certain types of dementia can cause seniors to lose touch with reality and drop their filters, you’d probably take these things personally. You might even demand that your spouse put a stop to this disrespectful behavior. After all, you both are making changes in your lives to provide care for this man. However, the truth is that most dementia behaviors cannot be remedied because the condition prevents the brain from functioning properly. Without a clear understanding of the disease and other facets of senior care, it can be very easy for tensions and resentment to build and undermine relationships, sometimes permanently.

Provide Emotional Support

When your spouse comes to you to vent, do you fuel the fire, knowing that your mother-in-law was always difficult and has only gotten worse? Or do you listen without judgment as they voice their concerns and frustrations about this stressful situation and then offer to pitch in with other aspects of life to reduce their workload?

The first approach is a human response and could even briefly feel good as you let your resentment fuel your significant other’s anger. After all, you’ve been feeling somewhat neglected lately. But, remember that you’re in this for the long haul. It’s important to let your spouse know that you understand why they feel the way they do. While vindication feels good in the moment for both of you, added judgement, even if it is directed at your mother-in-law and not your spouse, only adds more negativity to the mix. You want to help your significant other feel lighter and refreshed, not rile them up.

It can be tempting to use these venting sessions as a segue to discuss stepping back from caregiving and finding outside sources of assistance to fill the gap, but this can be dangerous territory. Suggestions of hiring home care or moving an in-law to senior living are made with the best intent. However, pitching ideas for improvement while your spouse is feeling disheartened can have the exact opposite effect than you’d hoped.

Family caregivers often second-guess the quality of care they provide to their loved ones. Sometimes suggestions are perceived as criticism or confirmation that they’re doing a shoddy job. They may be oversensitive throughout this journey, which is normal. The best rule of thumb is to always be mindful of whether your spouse is seeking moral support or advice and which you are primarily providing. When in doubt, offer reassurance that they’re doing their best and ask if they would be open to discussing respite options. However, you may have to wait for them to request advice directly.

Be a Team Player

One of the best things family and friends can do for caregivers is lend a helping hand to reduce their workload—and this doesn’t necessarily have to be hands-on assistance with providing care. There are countless other areas of daily life that your spouse could use help with. Offering to do the grocery shopping, take the car to be serviced, drive your father-in-law to the doctor, cook dinner, mow the lawn or pick up the kids from school are just a few small gestures that can make all the difference on a busy day.

Teamwork is a fundamental aspect of marriage, regardless of whether caregiving is a factor. If your spouse requests help, provide it if you can. Just keep in mind that one of the best gifts is getting exactly what you need without having to ask for it. Anticipating needs and putting in extra effort when you know your significant other is having a particularly difficult day can make things easier on everyone in some regard.

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Help Your Spouse Set Boundaries

Many caregivers struggle to partake in self-care and risk developing burnout. They provide care out of love and devotion but often lose sight of the personal sacrifices they make to do so — and the toll it takes on their health, finances, relationships, and careers. Helping a spouse set and respect boundaries for their role is a difficult yet valuable way of supporting them. Doing so at the very start of assuming caregiving responsibilities sets the stage for a more realistic and balanced experience for the entire family.

Have a frank discussion with your significant other about their plans for care. Nothing needs to be acted on immediately, but preparation and clear communication are crucial. Most seniors’ care needs increase over time as they age and their health wanes. Caregivers can be easily swept up in their duties, so thinking through hypothetical scenarios and asking each other challenging questions can help you both prepare for what’s to come. The following examples offer a good starting point for these conversations:

  • How will you ensure that you both prioritize your physical and mental health?
  • What steps will you take to keep your marriage strong and remain a reliable and supportive influence for your children?
  • How do your careers factor into caregiving?
  • What are each of your hard limits when it comes to providing care for aging family members?
  • In what scenarios would your spouse hire in-home care or encourage their parents to move to a senior living community?

These answers are not binding, but the discussion itself will help you both understand the gravity of caregiving and give you goals and boundaries to guide you throughout this journey. Enforcing these boundaries is another story, however. You and your spouse may be in full agreement during this initial discussion, but when emotions get the best of you both, rational thinking may take a back seat. Having regular check-ins with one another will help keep these goals fresh in your minds and allow you to acknowledge whether these boundaries are quickly approaching or have already been overstepped. Decisions can then be made as needed.

Don’t Lose Perspective

If you find yourself getting frustrated with caregiving-related changes in your spouse’s routine and priorities, you’re not alone. Many couples struggle to achieve balance while caring for loved ones, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in the unfairness of such an arrangement. Think back to a time when your significant other helped you through challenges in your life. Did they encourage you to pursue a challenging goal, support you during a career change, or care for you following a surgery or during an illness?

Spouses are supposed to honor and support one another in sickness and in health. Traditionally, this vow doesn’t include your parents’ well-being (or lack thereof), but I feel it’s relevant. You both saw something in each other that led you to get married. Don’t let the daily frustrations and exhaustion of caregiving undermine your commitment to and love for one another. 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.

Get Help When It’s Needed

If the physical and emotional aspects of providing care are taking a toll on your significant other and/or your relationship, support groups and counseling sessions can be very beneficial.

Seeking respite care, even in short amounts is also a must. Assist your spouse in looking for ways to lighten their load, even if it means hiring in-home caregivers or convincing your in-laws to move to a senior living community. Provide reassurance that allowing a professional to take over some of their caregiving duties isn’t an admission of failure or a selfish, uncaring act. It’s necessary for ensuring that aging loved ones AND their caregivers get the care they need.

There is no universal approach to caregiving or one-size-fits-all solution to the elder care conundrum. Communicating and working together to find solutions to issues as they arise is the best way to support one another throughout this difficult journey. While you can’t fix the situation, you can lighten the load. 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.