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Don't allow caregiving to doom your spousal relationship

by Isabel Fawcett, SPHR

Caring for someone who is chronically ill is challenging to caregivers. It may be even more challenging to marital and/or non-marital relationships, where the couple lives together. Caregivers don't want to choose between one relationship and the other. What can a responsible caregiver do?

Caregiving is Intense: Begin With the End in Mind

Anyway one chooses to look at it, caregiving can be intense. If the caregiver allows it, care responsibilities can become all-consuming. Before caregiving you had a life. After caregiving, you want to reclaim and celebrate life. That requires effort on your part.

Relationship Rescue Care Tip # 1: Caregiving will only be all-consuming if you allow it to be. Respite care is always an option - unless you are one of the caregivers who ignores exploring respite alternatives. Begin with the end in mind, is the first habit of Dr. Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Assuming that the end-goal of caregiving is as simple as achieving greater balance in life and in your marital or significant other relationship, allow yourself and your spouse or partner a little time away from being a hands-on carer. Go on a date, or enjoy a leisurely walk away from your neighborhood on a crisp fall day.

Enjoy a mid-morning cup of coffee to allow yourselves time to exhale. If you can afford it, spend one night as a couple at a nice spa resort. Enjoy full-body massages, beautiful sunsets, and remember what it is like to eat healthy meals.

Relationship Rescue Care Tip # 2: On the way back home, elicit input from your spouse or significant other regarding what all is working and what is downright irritating about your present caregiving arrangement. Don't judge, interrupt or censor anything that your spouse or partner has to say. If you ask, be prepared to actively listen, for as long as it takes. Be prepared to take notes. Encourage and thank your spouse or partner for being candid. Schedule your next respite date without responding to any of the input you have received.

Let your spouse know that you have heard what he or she has to say, and will think about everything said, to be discussed at your next date. Ask your partner to do the same, with the objective of developing a mutually acceptable strategic care plan. The plan must better meet both of your relationship and individual needs.

Relationship Rescue Care Tip # 3: Give each other days off or time away from in-your-face caregiving. Trust each other to get out and away from home for a day or half-day each week, to enjoy time alone and away from home, with no questions asked. Go forth and enjoy your well-deserved moments of leisure. On the way back home, think of a little gift to take for the partner who stayed at home to do the caregiving honors while you were away. It may be a single rose or a music CD. It may be a large bowl, with mini bags of popcorn and a DVD movie, or a book or...just let your imagination run wild, thinking about your partner-in-care who stayed home all day while you were allowed to play!

Relationship Rescue Care Tip # 4: At the end of each day, share your feelings and frustrations with each other before you kiss and hug each other goodnight. A brain dump usually helps at day's end. Kill the artificial lights! You'll lower your electric bill. Light a couple candles, relax and pour your hearts out to each other. Cry if you need to. Hold hands, if you wish, or just stare at the ceiling as you share.

If you are comfortable as a couple, role play with one of you seated in an over-sized chair. You're the psychologist on duty while you're in the chair. The ""patient"" is your partner who's laying in bed, staring at the ceiling and pouring his or her heart out to you. Then, switch roles. It's great therapy. No licensed psychologist need apply.

Of course, if you need professional counseling, go for it. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with seeking and accepting professional counseling when needed.

Relationship Rescue Care Tip # 5: Before you turn in to bed for the night, give your chronically ill parent or other relative in your care a hug, a kiss, and let him or her know how much you care. If it's true, ""I love you,"" is always a great way to end a day. So is a hug. Don't shut your elder out of your life.

Relationship Care Tip # 6: Secrets are bad news for any relationship. Don't keep caregiving secrets from your partner or spouse, unless you have reason to mistrust your spouse. If you do have reason to mistrust your spouse, you have much larger issues than caregiving. Assuming that your relationship is healthy, share developing medical, caregiving and financial issues. Stand together in family feud sibiling issues, if appropriate. Don't allow others to run interference with your relationship.

Relationship Care Tip # 7: Unless, or until, any of your siblings and/or other relatives wish to become primary caregivers to your parents, you - not they - are in charge of your elders' care. Guilt is not an option. Never surrender leadership. No one knows your care circumstances until they have walked in your shoes.

Relationship Care Tip # 8: Continuously evaluate whether caring at home is still the safest option for the person in your care. There may come a day where in-home care, or caring at home, is medically contraindicated. When that day comes, confidently do what is best to lovingly find the best nursing home care for your loved one, knowing that you have done your very best.

Relationship Care Tip # 9: Let your spouse or partner know how much you need and will appreciate his or her support if you have to place your parent in a nursing home.

Relationship Care Tip # 10: True love conquers all.

Live, laugh, and love each other - and your elders.