When we talk about the cost of being a family caregiver, we have to consider what this responsibility does to your marriage. Whether you’ve been married only a few months or many decades, caring for aging family members definitely takes its toll. Whether your loved one lives close by or far away, providing hands-on care takes time and effort, and might even mean spending nights, days, or even weeks away from your life partner.
When Betsy’s mother was in her last years of life, she was faced with the need to do her part to help her brother with their mom’s care as well as finding ways to spend quality time with her mom. This was a challenge, since Sarah lived nearly 500 miles away. But, for the last 2 years or so of Sarah’s life, Betsy made the commitment to spend most of a week with her each month. Driving took about 8 hours each way. Flying became the preferred way to go, because Betsy could leave our house at about 5 am, fly to Atlanta, pick up a rental car and be at her mother’s house by 10:30 am. Return trip days meant getting in on the last flight, which landed at our local airport sometime after 11:00 pm. If the plane was on time, that is. Betsy’s schedule meant that I was not only the taxi driver to and from the airport, but also meant that I was left home alone, with the business that we run together, the dog, and the empty house. When Sarah fell and broke her hip, the time between that event and her death required longer stays away for Betsy, and longer absences between us.
During these times, I missed my wife a lot! We have been married over 30 years, and she is also my best friend and my business partner. Her absence left a hole in my life until she got back. During these times she also needed my support. She was stressed with the travel, with the knowledge that time with her mother was short, and she was worried that she needed to do even more than she was already doing. She was concerned for our business. She was concerned for her brother, who would be left with the entire load when she came back home. She also felt the loneliness and separation from me, as much or more than I did, but when she got home, she was often exhausted and overwhelmed with it all.
If you are caring for a loved one, the physical and mental fatigue of being a caregiver can leave you with nothing left to give to your spouse. If you don’t prepare for this in partnership with your spouse, you might find that it builds frustration, resentment, and a whole host of negative emotions that can fracture the foundation of your marriage. We were able to minimize the strain by following a few rules.
First, COMMUNICATE! Much earlier in our marriage, when I was a sales rep and often on the road overnight, we made a commitment to talk to each other on the phone every day when I was away. Often, I would stay in my room and order room service and call home over dinner so we could eat together. We have kept this practice up, so that we talk every day, and I mean really talk, whenever one of us has to be away. And, when we are talking, both sides have to commit to sharing honest feelings AND listening to the other. Marriage is a partnership, and that “better or worse” part of the vows we made is crucial. We are supposed to be able to share each other’s successes and bear one another’s burdens.
The second thing is to REST. Betsy would come home during those days, and the next day needed to be almost a free day for her to reset for being home for a stretch. If you are caring for someone locally, make the time to take a day off and rest. Engage other family or even consider hiring some help for your loved one so that you can get the rest you need. Caregiving is exhausting; don’t let it overwhelm you. And make certain that your spouse knows how critical this time is for you.
Finally, plan special time with your spouse that doesn’t involve caring for anyone else. Betsy and I would plan dinners out, movies, and romantic evenings at home. Whatever you do, if it is scheduled, you can plan for it and enjoy the excitement of anticipating that time. A date night a week is ideal, but at least one every month is pretty much a necessity! And when you plan something, make it an absolute commitment. Don’t let anything other than a genuine emergency alter your plan.
As is the case in so many things, maintaining balance is the key to success. Also, keeping the perspective that while the stresses of caregiving are real, in most cases they are also only for a season. Remember that seasons come and go, but your marriage is a partnership that is meant to endure all seasons. Nurture it and prioritize it and you can flourish in the midst of the struggles.
Betsy and I hope you will join us this week here at Heart of the Caregiver and share your heart about finding time to nurture your marriage will being a family caregiver.