We're All in This Together: Family Caregiving Under the Same Roof

We're All in This Together: Family Caregiving Under the Same Roof

When a loved one can no longer safely life independently, families often come up with the solution of a shared household. This can be beneficial financially to all parties and to the well-being of someone who may have been feeling lonely.

There are an estimated 43.5 million family caregivers in the United States, according to a new study by the AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving. Within those numbers are all kinds of relationships, living arrangements, and care situations that may work temporarily or be sustained for the long term.

Reality Check

Inviting your Mom to move in with your spouse and kids can be an opportunity, maybe for the children to make new memories with grandparents or you to think about your own future and plan accordingly.

David Bakke invited his mother-in-law to move in with him, his wife, and their three kids for financial and health reasons. “She’s a widow, and could no longer afford her mortgage payment,” he said. “She also has high blood pressure and suffers from bouts of fatigue due to her medication.”

Mr. Bakke said that it has been less difficult to live with his mother-in-law than he expected--and he really appreciates the live-in babysitting she provides for their children.

Mr. Bakke said that he enjoys a good relationship with his mother-in-law. “Try to focus on the positive aspects of your relationship,” he said. “If there is a particular activity you both enjoy, do it together more often. You might find that if you take the time to get to know your mother-in-law better, you can work out your disagreements more easily.”

Ken Brown and his wife moved to be near his in-laws and, due to some unexpected health crises, pretty quickly found themselves in the role of full-time caregivers. After brain surgery, his wife’s step-father began showing signs of Alzheimer’s and around that time her mother had a stroke and was left partially paralyzed.

“It is a tremendous undertaking and sacrifice, but no less so than the commitment our parents made to us when we were children, and certainly no less than the efforts we made to raise our own children,” Mr. Brown said. They hire a caregiver part-time, and they do the lion’s share of the caregiving themselves.

“At first, it was uncomfortable for both my wife and I to assist her parents with bathing, bathroom, etc., but one becomes accustomed to it and you learn to treat it with humor,” he said. “Our highest priority is not our work nor our recreational enjoyment of life, but our satisfaction comes from taking care of our responsibilities.”

A Little Too Real

Although Mr. Bakke and Mr. Brown were able to find the silver linings in caring for their elder loved ones, living together with one’s parents with reversed roles is going to have some challenges.

“It’s like a perfect storm, but not so perfect for relationships,” said Dr. Debra Castaldo, a family and couples therapist and faculty member at Rutgers University Institute for the Family. “Adult children might bring an elderly parent in to live with them because retirement living is really expensive.”

Dr. Castaldo counsels many families who are dealing with the strain these new living arrangements have on marriages and other relationships. “Issues from childhood come right back up,” she said. “And sometimes characteristics can get worse with aging.”

Her main advice for multi-generational households like this is, “Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! The key to living with extended family,” she said.

This means establishing boundaries for separate family time and couple time for just the husband and wife. Then spouses need to communicate about their own boundaries as caregivers and what they are and aren’t willing to do in that role before resentment builds.

But just as Dr. Castaldo said, sometimes it’s about history and not current events going on under the same roof. “My wife actually has many more issues than I do,” Mr. Bakke said of his mother-in-law living with them. “She and her mother have very different personalities, and they frequently clash. Their differing opinions on household cleanliness, how meals should be prepared, and so forth often lead to quarrels. Therefore, I have to deal with my wife’s venting from time to time.”

For these reasons, Dr. Castaldo tells families to communicate about all of these potential issues prior to making the offer to all live together. “Really think about it and weigh all of the issues before and don’t leap into it,” she said. “Once you are in it, it is really difficult to get out of it.”

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