Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Navigating your role as the spouse of a caregiver

There is much written today about the challenges of caregiving and how to manage those challenges—but what if it isn’t you who is the caregiver, but your spouse? What is your role then?

Examining family dynamics

The first step in answering this question is to think about the type and quality of your relationship with your spouse’s family. Some people think of their children’s spouses as full members of the family—like my friends, who call their sons-in-law, “sons-in-love.” In their situation, their sons-in-law are fully engaged in family conversations and decision making, and thus consider themselves “co-caregivers” with their spouses. However, other families may maintain a more distant relationship with their children’s spouses. When it comes time for family decisions, adult children may talk privately with their spouses, but you may find you’re not included in the actual decision making. This creates a more ambiguous role for you as the spouse and one that requires more navigation.

Defining your role

So assuming you are in a family where only the adult children are included in the caregiving decision making, what part will you play? One of the most proactive things you can do is to have an essential conversation with your spouse to decide together how you can best support them in their caregiving efforts with their family. Prior to that conversation, you may want to do some self-reflection about what you are and aren’t willing to do, and how you want to be involved in the caregiving tasks.

For example: ask yourself if you want to be available to provide some of the care to your in-laws. If so, how much time are you willing to devote to caregiving? Another area to consider is how you will handle it if you strongly disagree with your spouse and their family about how they are providing care. Will you talk to your spouse about how you feel, or simply keep it to yourself? How will it make your spouse feel?

When you talk to your spouse you can ask about the best ways you can support them during this time. It may be by providing some of the care needed for their parents, or it may be that you take over some of the tasks your spouse usually does around the house. Likely you will be the sounding board and emotional support as he or she goes through their caregiving journey. You’ll also find that needs will change over time, and that is why frequent check-ins with each other are very helpful.

Keeping your relationship strong

Sometimes the spouse of a caregiver can feel neglected and resentful when their spouse is devoting a lot of time to caregiving. It’s important to make sure that you also talk with your spouse about what you need during this time. Recognizing that your spouse may feel pulled in many different directions, it may still be a good idea to schedule some time on a regular basis for the two of you to do things you enjoy together. This will both relieve stress and help you stay connected!

Emotional support

It’s also important that you have emotional support and someone you can talk to if you get irritated or resentful while your spouse is caregiving. Oftentimes, family issues arise, and if you are on the outside looking in and feeling that you should not offer opinions, you may find it quite frustrating. We all need the opportunity to vent about annoyances and concerns, and having a friend who will listen and help us shift our perspective can make all the difference to our peace of mind.

Being the spouse of a caregiver isn’t a role that is well-defined, but the good news is that you can define it for yourself. Self-reflection, conversations with your spouse, quality time for the two of you, and an emotional support network are some of the things that will help you thrive as the spouse of a caregiver.

Dr AmyAbout Dr. Amy D’Aprix

Dr. Amy is a certified senior advisor, Vice President of the International Federation on Aging, and Co-Founder of the Essential Conversations Project. As a gerontological social worker, she has over thirty years of experience working with older adults and their families.