When Caregiving Threatens the Family’s Functioning–Part 2: In-laws and Spouse

hanging mobile - Quiet Ending

Few challenges require establishing priorities, setting boundaries, testing  loyalties and dealing with allegiances the way in-laws with health issues can.

When our spouse’s aging parents require more attention and care, in-laws–whether loved or not–are thrust into the family’s dynamics. This changes the balance. The way we handle it is key.

Using the mobile analogy (which helps understanding how families work), our spouse’s response to the emotional and practical demands of this new responsibility impact all family members.

If the spouse (let’s say he’s male) is stressed and/or on overload, some of his family’s actions need to be different (eg. show more understanding, pick up some of the slack) if it’s to function as before. And we must remember the one constant, introduced in the last post: we have only 100% to give, so need to allocate it thoughtfully.

Example: How we’ve accomplished this–

Last week I spoke with M, a former counseling colleague,  We hadn’t been in touch since summer. After the “How have you been? and a quick check that families were OK, I responded that my m-i-l, (who my colleague knew) was dealing with non-life-threatening, but none-the-less confidence-undermining issues. Not unexpected at 100.

I learned her mother-in-law, now 90, was in the same predicament–not life-threatening but definitely life-changing. Then as counselors often do, we first discussed aging in a general way–then specifically our role when it’s our husband’s mother.

It doesn’t matter that our mother-in-laws are very different. Nor that the relationship with our mother-in-laws is very different. And our husbands are very different. Quite independently our way of addressing the situation was the same. Probably because we’d taken the same Family Systems Theory in-service course (given by a social worker) many years ago. It made so much sense and gave us helpful understandings for our counseling.

M and I have good communication with our husbands. We’ve had thoughtful discussions about the situation, agreeing on what we can and can’t do. We’re aware of our boundaries–flexibilities, competencies, energy. It feels instinctive. Yet maintaining the balance takes effort– effort to keep our lives from being consumed, while we’re caring individuals, wanting to do our part to help an aging parent (whether out of genuine love or because we want to support our spouse’s caregiving responsibilities). 

Neither elder wants advice; they’ve been told they’re good–or much better than good  much of their lives. They want to complain and they have needs, but we–whether or not they love us–aren’t the ones they want to hear from (unless asked). And while they may not want suggestions from anyone, when it comes right down to it, their sons are the legitimate advice-givers, not us.

Independently M and I decided our husbands will take the lead; we’re in a supporting role here. We’ll do as asked or as our instincts tell us. And we aren’t perfect. We’ll no doubt put in our 2 cents worth with our husbands as we always do, even if not asked; but we’ll be careful about how we do it. Since I’m married to an only child it’s easier than M’s situation–where her husband and brother don’t always agree.

It’s not our business yet. I say “yet” because when it interferes with our lives, we would  talk with our husbands about giving up–or sharing–responsibilities. And that’s where we must know ourselves and our boundaries and try to be as flexible as possible within those boundaries and know when we need others’ help.

“Others” could be a doctor’s saying or suggesting things that wouldn’t be accepted from us; getting additional helpers–part or full-time, asking siblings to take on more responsibility (and figuring out in advance what they can do best); using outsiders like Meals on Wheels or visiting nurse services; and contacting a family service agency for ideas to make life easier, which may include some counseling.

“If the monkey wants a banana, give him/her a banana.” Picking our battles– another way of saving ourselves and supporting the balance. The preceding quote didn’t come from a counseling course. It comes from the corporate world back in the day when deals were being made. People needed to keep their eye on the ball–not risk losing a major deal because of some minor requirement from the other side. In short: no arguments over the small stuff.

We try to help parents age well. Understanding the above and following the airplane instructions: “Place the mask over your face and mouth before assisting others” can help us and our families.

Visiting Nurse Service of NY weighs in: http://www.vnsny.org/caregivers/family-relationships/caregiving-for-your-inlaws/

Read and note how “family systems” are at work in this plain-spoken, advice-giving piece: http://www.foryourmarriage.org/when-youre-married-to-the-caregiver/

Carol Bursack wrote several posts about “Caregiving and Relationships” in Aging Care. The Aging Care link has a limited life. Go to Carol’s blog and the above title (preceding in quotes) if that happens.

Family Systems Theory For those wanting a more academic explanation.

Changing often: “Of Current Interest” (right sidebar). Timely links to research and information from top universities, plus some fun stuff to help parents age well.

3/26/14 Help! Aging Parents is nominated again for the Seniorhomes.com Best Senior Living Awards 2014, “Best Blogs by Individuals.” It was a 2013 finalist. I appreciated your vote then and would very much appreciate it again. If you’re on Facebook, click the top gold badge in the sidebar at right to vote. Deadline 4/28/14 Thanks so much!


4 thoughts on “When Caregiving Threatens the Family’s Functioning–Part 2: In-laws and Spouse

  1. Pingback: Family Dynamics: Caring for In-laws | What to Do about Mama?

  2. I stated in my book:

    “I had the opportunity to demonstrate to my mother-in-law and siblings-in-law my appreciation for being a part of their family since I was 18 years old. I was also able to show thanks to my parents-in-law for providing support in our times of need. Most of all, I was able to show gratitude for their assistance and encouragement in helping to provide our children with their college educations. This was to be my gift to my all of my in-laws.”

    But after 7 years of caregiving, 4 of those in my home, I felt quite differently, as is apparent on page 25:

    “I felt that most of the escalating friction of the past two years could be attributed to my role as an in-law caregiver. I found that I didn’t really understand how to navigate the family culture. It had just not been a problem before the relationship had become so complex.”

    Although I believe my husband has a deeper appreciation for me because I assumed the role of primary caregiver for his mother, I would say that his siblings do not. As a matter of fact, our contact is infrequent now that I am no longer useful to them.

    Your statement:

    “When our spouse’s aging parents require more attention and care, in-laws–whether loved or not–are thrust into the family’s dynamics. Obviously this changes the balance. The way we handle it is key.”

    is correct. Clearly, family dynamics will ever be the same again.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s