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When Living With Elderly Parents Isn't Working Out

Claire Samuels
By Claire SamuelsAugust 22, 2020

Taking care of an elderly parent in your home is a huge commitment. It can strengthen family bonds and improve caregiving logistics, but it can also cause friction.

Read one couple’s family caregiving story, discover different ways to adjust to caring for aging parents, and learn expert advice about how to move forward when living with elderly parents isn’t working out.

From a retirement community to her daughter’s home: Mildred’s story

Lynette and Marty Whiteman were getting used to losing sleep.

After Lynette’s aging mother Mildred moved into their New Jersey home from her retirement community, she regularly woke the couple, asking for help at odd hours. To Mildred, the requests were urgent — but Marty didn’t see changing light bulbs or resetting microwave clocks as tasks to crawl out of bed for.

Mildred’s increasing care needs and knocks on the couple’s door at midnight were taking a toll on their marriage. Tension over caregiving roles steadily increased, while their privacy decreased. The Whitemans, like many adults who choose to care for aging parents, thought having Mildred nearby would keep her safe, and would prevent them from having to travel back and forth between their home and hers.

“It was a great idea in concept,” says Lynette. “But we didn’t know what we were getting into.”

Being a family caregiver: when expectations meet reality

“Moving someone into your home is an enormous commitment,” says Jennifer FitzPatrick, a gerontology professor and author of “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One.”

Many families believe that living with elderly parents will simplify caregiving. They believe it may be less expensive than senior living and easier than visiting an aging relative in their own home. But sometimes these expectations don’t fit the reality of being a family caregiver, and the arrangement doesn’t always work out long term.

It was a great idea in concept. But we didn’t know what we were getting into.

Lynette Whiteman, former family caregiver

If you’re taking care of an elderly parent in your home and feeling strained, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How much care does your aging loved one need? Maybe you’re comfortable cooking and doing laundry, but not as comfortable bathing your parent or helping them use the bathroom. If you’re not able to provide care, it may be time for home care or assisted living.
  2. Is the relationship mutually beneficial? Sometimes, a parent needs help but can also contribute to the household by cooking meals or helping grandkids with homework, says FitzPatrick. Perhaps, living with your elderly parents as a sandwich generation caregiver is only possible when they can pitch in or provide some extra help.
  3. How is family caregiving affecting your marriage? Your children? Up to 80% of people caring for an elderly parent or relative report increased strain on their romantic partnerships, according to a study of 300 spouses of family caregivers. 

    After their adult sons moved out, Marty and Lynette grew accustomed to their newfound privacy and spontaneity. However, when Lynette’s mom moved in, all privacy disappeared. Ready for solitude as empty nesters, the couple was faced with virtually no alone time. “We fought more than we had in a really long time,” says Lynette. “It complicated everything.”
  4. Are you experiencing caregiver burnout? Taking care of elderly parents can lead to significant caregiver health risks. If being a family caregiver is severely affecting your mental and physical health and well-being, it’s time to take a step back. This could mean enlisting other family members, respite care, or considering a new living situation.

If you’re caring for a loved one who doesn’t live with you, check out this resource to see if you’re ready for your elderly parent to move in.

Caring for aging parents seemed like a good idea

Caring for Mildred at home wasn’t urgent, but it seemed like a good idea to Lynette. Her mom would receive regular social interaction, and they could form a closer relationship together. 

Before moving in with her daughter, Mildred had grown depressed and isolated. Her late husband — Lynette’s father — had been outgoing, and he kept the couple engaged in community life and social events. Without him around, Lynette was worried. What if Mildred became too lonely? What if she fell while she was alone?

“We figured she’d have somebody if something happened in the middle of the night, and we could help her with her bills,” says Lynette. So, they built a small, attached apartment with a private kitchen and bathroom using some of Mildred’s savings. But the adjustment was more difficult than expected

Adjusting to living with elderly parents

At first, Marty and Lynette had trouble accepting the constant late-night interruptions and nightly dinners at home. It seemed like they’d put their lives — and their marriage — on hold to care for Mildred. However, the couple’s situation improved after they agreed to work as a team, make adjustments, and follow caregiver advice such as:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even short breaks can prevent caregiver burnout. Marty and Lynette eventually hired a home care aide to come once a week to help Mildred shower — a decision that eliminated what was once a daunting task. 
  2. Make time for yourself, and for your loved one. Try scheduling regular activities with your aging parent, dates with your partner, and along time to recharge. “We put her meds out for her, made dinner, and watched ‘Jeopardy’ with her every night,” says Lynette. “But after a while we started getting out on our own as well.”
  3. Accept that some things don’t change. Lynette had to finally face the fact that she could never transform her mother, who continued to isolate herself at home, into a happy person. She could only make sure her mom was safe and taken care of.
  4. Set boundaries. When you’re taking care of an elderly parent in your home, they aren’t just guests. You can share rules and guidelines with them as members of the family and household. For example, it was good for Mildred to wake up her daughter with medical concerns or emergencies, but resetting clocks could wait until morning. However, this guideline may not work for caregivers of loved ones with dementia or cognitive decline. 
  5. Recognize it’s tough, and you’re doing your best. Living with elderly parents can be difficult — be aware that you’re doing what you can to help your loved one, even if it feels thankless sometimes. 

When living with elderly parents isn’t working out

Like Lynette and Marty, it’s possible to turn a difficult situation with an aging parent into a successful living arrangement. However, it doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes, the caregiving burden becomes too much, or the aging relative’s health and happiness are at risk.

“If living with elderly parents isn’t working out, chances are they feel the same way,” says FitzPatrick, who recommends having an honest talk with your aging loved one.

  1. Ask your parent how they feel about the arrangement. “Don’t assume your parent will be heartbroken that you don’t think it’s going well,” says FitzPatrick. “Starting the discussion and asking their opinion shows respect.”
  2. Address challenges of living with elderly parents. Include the difficulties they may be facing as well. You might focus on the lack of privacy everyone, including your parent, is experiencing. Then discuss possible solutions and work as a team to find a resolution.
  3. Prepare yourself psychologically. If your aging parent has a history of being manipulative, confrontational, or overly dependent, seek support from a counselor, geriatric care manager, or friend.
  4. Don’t feel guilty. Deciding against living with elderly parents doesn’t mean that you love them any less, or that you’re avoiding your responsibilities, says FitzPatrick. Help them find a new living situation that benefits you both, and show your support throughout the move.
Claire Samuels
Claire Samuels
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