Are you thinking of having an elderly parent move in with you and your partner? If so, Carol Bradley Bursack has some advice. I spoke to the veteran caregiver, columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories by phone from her home in North Dakota.
YAU: There is a trend of older parents moving in with their adult children. Is having a parent move in with a couple a good idea?
First of all, I wouldn’t try it unless the marriage is already strong. Also, both people need to be on board. If one person is lukewarm, there will be stress. If the older person is loved by both, that is the best scenario.
YAU: What should a couple consider before living with a parent?
Couples invite their parents to move in with them from the goodness of their heart or sometimes because of a “crisis.” But they don’t always think through how it will affect their marriage. Do they both understand that having another adult move in will probably put extra stress on the relationship, and do they feel that they can adjust to this? It’s way harder to change your mind and move somebody out.
YAU: Are there ways to get off on the right foot?
Setting ground rules and establishing boundaries is a good idea. Ideally, a couple would have a conversation with the parent ahead of time. For example: “This will really work if we all have some autonomy.” Discussing finances such as who is paying for what is important. When somebody has cognitive decline then you’re not looking so much at ground rules because they may not remember or understand them.
YAU: Your grandmother moved in with your family when you were a teenager. What did your parents do right that could be helpful to others?
My parents invested in building a home to accommodate all of us. My grandmother had her own little sitting room. We respected that if she wanted to watch different television than us, or just have time to herself, this was her space. I tell people constantly: “If you are going to do this, take into mind that everyone needs their privacy.” This includes the couple, the elder person, and any children.
YAU: How can living with a grandmother be a positive experience for children?
Children can gain an understanding and compassion for older people. Perhaps grandma used to be their best playmate and now needs help. If people can avoid putting too much pressure and responsibility on children, they can gain from not always being the focus of attention Also, a grandparent can be another touchstone for growing children. Perhaps the grandparent will have the responsibility to be there when the kids get home from school. It can be the best of both worlds if everyone gets along.
YAU: You’ve said that marriages can break because of the stress of caregiving. How can a couple keep their marriage strong?
It’s easy to put the marriage on the back burner when your parent needs help. And I do think a spouse should be willing to do that for a little while; that’s just part of marriage. But when it comes to bringing somebody into your home long term, you’re looking at something different. Caregiving can be difficult and time consuming. Let your spouse have time on their own, however they choose to use it. Do that for each other but also make sure to have couple time. That may mean having someone take grandma somewhere so you have the house alone, or having someone come in so you can have date night. Being able to reconnect as a couple on a regular basis will go a long way towards keeping the marriage strong.
YAU: What is another good practice for a couple?
Being open to talking with someone outside the family if there are problems. As the saying goes, “You can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle.” A third person with whom a couple can be honest and air their grievances—a friend, a counsellor, a clergy person—can help handle things before they get too difficult. It would be good to make a pact before the parent moves in: “We will talk about problems in a calm manner with the help of a third party to keep our marriage strong.”
YAU: You have adult sons. Would you ever live with their families?
As much as I adore my children, I’m a person who needs a lot of autonomy. I would also find it a lot easier to ask for help from a stranger than a family member. I do not want my kids to give that much of their life for me. I hope they will continue to visit and be kind but I would say: “Just make sure I have a stack of library books, then go do your own thing.”