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Finding Emotional Support When Caring for an Aging Parent

Watching a parent decline in health is one of the hardest things in life. You will probably experience many of the emotions that were discussed. There are many ways that you and your spouse can be uniquely helpful to each other. Each of your contributions can make all the difference in the world in both practical and emotional ways.

Be Supportive

Marriage Q & A's

Q: My mother-in-law's health is starting to decline. How can I help?

A: Pay attention to the health and overall functioning of your parents-in-law. It might be easier for you to see and accept a decline in health in your parent-in-law than it is for your spouse. In turn, your spouse might notice things that you aren't able to see in your own parents.

When your spouse is dealing with an aging parent, he or she might be less available to you both physically and emotionally. Your partner might need to visit a nursing home, do errands, and spend more time in general with his or her parent. It's difficult to give up some time with your spouse, but it's part of being in a supportive marriage.

Your spouse might be more moody than usual as well. He or she is probably dealing with a lot of emotions we talked about earlier: anger, helplessness, a sense of loss, a feeling of mortality. These can create very powerful feelings. At times he or she might need to be alone, and at other times he or she might want a shoulder to cry on.

Your partner will also appreciate your help. Offer to take your parent-in-law to the doctor or go grocery shopping. If your parent-in-law is in a nursing home, go along on some of the visits. Your spouse will remember your involvement for many years to come.

Don't Forget Your Relationship

Soul Mates

Praise your spouse often when he or she is dealing with an aging parent. Let him or her know how difficult it is and how well he or she is managing things. Your praise will go a long way when your spouse is handling such an emotional issue.

It's especially important to keep your relationship with each other strong. You might be feeling overwhelmed by time and energy commitments to a parent, but don't forget each other. Keep doing nice things for each other, treating each other nicely, and spending time together. Even if you cannot spend as much time together as you used to, make every effort to spend at least a reasonable amount of regular time together. You will best be able to support each other if you continue investing in the relationship.

Outside Support

Many couples feel overwhelmed by their emotions when dealing with an aging parent. Maybe they were handling things well at first, but over time their marital relationship can really suffer. This is especially true if the situation is long term. This can be a difficult transition, and going outside the relationship for support can be a wise move.

There are several options when looking for outside support. There are many support groups that deal with aging parents. You can contact retirement communities, nursing homes, or religious organizations for information. It can be extremely helpful to be in a room full of people who are all going through the same thing that you are. Being in a support group can help you to feel like you are not alone. The other members will understand your emotions and will often have practical advice that you might find helpful.

When his father needed to be moved to an assisted-living facility, Ralph felt terrible. He was racked with guilt for not having his father live with them. He was having trouble sleeping and not enjoying the time he was spending with his wife, Linda. One day when he was visiting his father, he saw a notice for a support group on the bulletin board. It took place once a week in the assisted-living facility. He thought he would give it a try.

Ralph found the group incredibly helpful. The first few times that he went, he just listened to everybody else. He was amazed at how many people had similar feelings. Finally, he felt brave enough to talk and felt relieved when he was supported by others. After several months, he noticed that his sleep was improved, he was able to be more objective about his father, and he was better able to enjoy his time with Linda.

Soul Mates

Accompany your spouse once or twice to a support group. You will better understand what your partner is experiencing.

Ralph continued going to the group for the three years that his father was in the facility. He felt that the connection with the other people in the group was important. Ralph knew that they would be there for him and he could also be there for them when they needed support. He also ran into some of the group members when he was visiting his father, which he enjoyed. Linda realized how much the group was helping him, too, and she was grateful to the facility for having the support group available.

For some people, individual therapy is particularly helpful during this time. Childhood issues often come to the surface when you are caring for a parent. Issues that you identified in the earlier quiz, such as not feeling appreciated by a parent or feeling a sibling was favored over you, are going to effect how you deal with your parent. Therapy can help you sort out your emotions so that you will be better able to care for your parent.

Couples therapy can also be useful, especially if the situation is going to be long term. A therapist will be objective and can help you to make decisions that will affect both of you. If the situation is particularly stressful and is interfering with your marriage, this therapy is particularly useful.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Marriage © 2001 by Hilary Rich and Helaina Laks Kravitz, M.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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