11 Rules for Supporting Your Aging Parents and In-Laws

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Spouses must make a plan to care for aging parents and in-laws. © Photo by Westend61/Creative Images/Getty Images. Westend61/Creative Images/Getty Images

Caring for your aging parents or in-laws is becoming an inevitable part of life because people are living longer. But becoming a caretaker for an elderly relative can also cause friction in your marriage. As a result, newlyweds should come up with a game plan - if possible, even before anyone has health problems - for dealing with aging or sick parents and in-laws. To keep your marriage intact and still be a good son, daughter, or in-law, here's what you need to do.

Only six months into her marriage, Susan Salach's 91-year-old grandfather moved in with her family - she and her husband and her husband's three teenage children from a previous relationship. "We were just getting adjusted to living together… adding grandpa to the mix was like throwing gasoline on a fire," writes Salach, author of Along Comes Grandpa (Wheatmark, 2006) in an e-mail.

When trying to find time for her husband seemed impossible, Salach decided her marriage had to take priority. "When you take care of yourself and put your marriage first, your marriage will have a better foundation to build upon, and you [will] have more energy, stamina, endurance, emotional fortitude, and patience to help others," Salach writes.

2. Have the talk.

Couples should add the conversation about how they'd like to care for aging or ill family members to the list of discussions they should have either before marriage or in the early stages of newlywed life. Now is the time to decide exactly what you'd like to do for your parents and in-laws, says Don Billings, marketing coordinator at Lutheran Social Services of Illinois.

Ask questions, such as whether you'd prefer having someone move in and becoming the exclusive caretaker (which most experts say should be a last resort) or getting them home health care, he adds. There are a number of options, says Billings, including assisted living homes. You might want to get mom and dad and siblings in on these conversations, too, because it is a family issue as well as a marital one.

3. Set a budget.

Besides the time it takes to care for an aging or sick relative, money often becomes an issue. Taking the money issue out of the equation by saving ahead of time, working with your parents or in-laws to be able to afford their care, and finding other avenues for getting money (think Medicare or Medicaid or military benefits for veterans) can help, says Ronald Fatoullah, an attorney specializing in elder law and estate planning in New York.

To keep money from coming between you and your spouse, consider creating a budget together. "My wife and I have set a budget for money and energy to care for my parents, and we won't spend more than that," says Barry J. Jacobs, clinical psychologist author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers (The Guilford Press, 2006).

4. Make major decisions together.

No one wants to poison her marriage with resentment. That's why both spouses have to be satisfied with the decisions being made and the level of commitment to the relative in need of care. The last thing you want is for your spouse to feel as though you've chosen your parents over him or her. Jon and Kae Tienstra have been caring for Jon's parents for sometime now.

After Jon's father passed away, he convinced his mom to move near him and his wife in Pennsylvania. Caring for his father who lived far away was difficult and set the couple back about two years with their public relations and literary services business, says Kae. Moving his mom to an apartment near their home was more convenient for everyone. We can rest at night knowing where she is, says Kae. Although Kae didn't have much of a relationship with her in-laws before, she is pleased with the decision to move her at-first reluctant mother-in-law, whom she has grown fond of. Kae attributes teamwork with helping the couple get through it all. "Marry your best friend," she says. "It was a matter of being a united front with two difficult people."

5. Set boundaries and give each other privacy.

Most loved ones, especially parents, never want to be a burden to anyone, says Jacobs. But the time, energy, and money required for their care can sometimes infringe unwittingly on your marriage. Especially if you are living together or need to be in each other's homes for long periods of time, setting boundaries is a must. Salach recalls her grandfather taking it upon himself to report on her stepchildren's every move and walking around nude - and sometimes falling - in public areas of the house. She quickly set some rules to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future.

In addition, Salach put up a shower curtain in the living area to give her grandfather some privacy. Maintaining the independence of the relative you're helping to the extent that it is possible is a necessity. Parents don't want their kids telling them what to do, after all. Giving them some freedom can also inspire loved ones, depending on their health, to help with the family or keep up an active lifestyle.

In fact, Billings had moved his mother-in-law into his house, when she was 58. When she turned 62 and was eligible for assisted living, she moved out on her own because she wanted her independence and didn't want to live with her 2- and 4-year-old grandchildren, who were young and required extra care themselves.

6. Make time for yourselves.

Just about everyone who has had to deal with taking care of an aging parent or relative suggests that couples set aside time to be alone with each other. Staying connected is of the utmost importance, as is stress relief. "You must maintain the time and space to nurture your marriage," says Jacobs. "Otherwise, you run the risk of being unable to grow as a couple."

Date night or even a vacation or weekend getaway can help you demonstrate your love of your spouse and gives you the chance to unwind. Couples therapy is necessary for some people, says Fatoullah. Those who are caring for relatives with terminal illnesses or living with aging or sick relatives might be under more stress, which could require additional support. The bottom line is that you have to do whatever it takes to protect your marriage.

7. Ask for help.

Sometimes, to make sure that you can get that time alone, you'll have to ask for help from a friend or another relative. You might even have to hire a nurse or caretaker. Lisa Boesen of Houston, Texas, has been married five years. Her mom and dad lived on and off with her and her husband, while her mom was treated for pancreatic cancer, until her parents passed away in December 2008 and January 2009 respectively. Her sister also moved in for a while to serve as an additional caretaker.

When the tension of having everyone under one roof got to them one night, she and her husband went to a hotel and left her sister with mom and dad. "Everybody needs a break and that's okay," says Boesen, who suggests using your resources and letting people give you a hand. "Let people know what you really need," she adds.

8. Help your in-laws, too.

Consider the kind of relationship you have with your in-laws and offer to help them when they're aging and/or ill in the way that best fits. Holding grudges or being resentful about it only hurts your husband or wife. "Just think that they're at the end of their life," says Boesen. "They gave you the gift of your spouse." Keep in mind the advice that your parents would have probably given you about respecting elders and caring for those in need and follow suit when it comes to your in-laws.

Nancy Parode, the Guide to Senior Travel for About.com, says she and her husband have talked about how to care for aging parents from the beginning of their marriage because they live far away from their extended family. Although her mother-in-law is able to take care of herself now, Parode is prepared to play a part in her care should she ever need help. "I think my role is to support my husband and my mother-in-law as they work together to ensure that she has control over where she lives and how her life works," writes Parode in an e-mail. "I also know I'll be called upon to drive her places she's not comfortable driving to herself, if she does move to our part of the country."

9. Reevaluate the situation every so often.

The caretakers - be it you and your spouse or siblings - should get together every so often to discuss observations about mom and dad's health, systems or routines that might no longer be working, and how to improve care and convenience for everyone. The Tienstras meet with Jon's sister at a diner to eat and go over everything that's been happening with mom. Kae says it's a good way to prepare themselves for the future and tend to any problems that need resolving. Checking in with people also gives you all a chance to tweak things that are not working and communicate your own needs and desires.

10. Support your spouse as parent's health declines.

People are rarely ready to give up their mom or dad or any other close relative, even if the person has been suffering. The spouse whose parent is ill will be facing some serious challenges. "Whatever practical realities there are, there will be many powerful emotional forces driving your husband or wife," says Francine Russo, author of They're Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents Aging (Bantam, 2010).

Giving your support by lending an ear, offering a hug, or pitching in with the care taking can go a long way to bring you and your husband or wife together in difficult times. "Go back to your vows - 'for better or worse,'" says Boesen. "This is the worse."

11. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen your marriage.

Bruce Norton, founder and lead developer of Real Web Geeks, told his father, who was frail and having trouble getting around, that he needed his help, and therefore would like him to move in with the family. Norton's father agreed and the move made him stronger. Indeed, Norton's father does help by keeping an eye on his granddaughter, chipping in financially sometimes, going to the grocery store, and cooking meals.

While Norton admits that everyone, including his wife and father, have had to make adjustments to their lives, he would not have it any other way. "When you really look at life, what it really boils down to is relationships, and there are few things more important than relationships with parents," says Norton. "You can tap into their wisdom when they're in your home."

Indeed, caring for an aging relative can be good for your marriage and family. Says Jacobs, "When you stand shoulder to shoulder in caring for someone older, you set a good example for the kids, and you show them what love and family are all about."