We are starting our fifth year caring for my husband’s father in our home. It has been a very rewarding experience that has enriched our lives tremendously. The last four years haven’t been conflict free though, and I’ve learned a lot through the process of sharing my home with an in-law. Perhaps these three lessons will encourage other families in a similar living arrangement.
1. Maintain a Proper Perspective of the Responsibility
Since it is my husband’s father who lives with us, the burden of responsibility falls on my husband. The children and I help my husband fulfill the responsibility he’s accepted. Currently, I am the primary caregiver on a day-to-day basis providing many of the meals, doing laundry, and accompanying my father-in-law to medical appointments. My husband cleans his father's room and bathroom once a week. More importantly, it is my husband who makes decisions of what needs our family can and can’t meet, what outside resources to use, and what we ask of his extended family. I would carry these responsibilities if we were caring for one of my parents. It’s a subtle difference in how we think about our roles, but this mindset has allowed us to make decisions about my involvement without a feeling of obligation. It has enabled me to go on with things that are important to me like homeschooling our children, attending college classes, taking a long weekend to visit my 98 year-old Grandmother, or spending a week at my daughter’s home out of state. For us, it has helped for person with the biological relationship to carry the weight of responsibility.
2. Maintain a Broad System of Support
We drastically underestimated how hard it can be to meet an elderly parent’s need for companionship. It’s not just getting the meal on the table, but taking the time to sit and share conversation meal after meal, day after day. We’ve had to find support. We’ve had to encourage my father-in-law to look beyond our family for camaraderie. This has been vital for everyone’s mental health. We’ve found the best solution has been the community recreational center where Grandpa can have an inexpensive lunch with other seniors, walk the indoor track, and even engage in a daily game of billiards with some new friends. Expanding the circle of my father-in-law's companions has enriched his life and our care-giving.
3. Maintain Your Own Family Culture
The differences between the home my husband and I have created and the one where he grew up are huge. In our home, men help in the kitchen. Our family celebrates Advent. Our boys own guns and loud pick up trucks. Our teens come in later than my husband ever dared. Continuing our family’s culture or way of living right under my father-in-law's nose has not been easy. There have been times we’ve felt pressured to change who we are or how we live to gain his approval. Over the years, we’ve learned it is far better to live true - even if the result is disapproval. Towards this end, we've focused on inviting Grandpa into our traditions, religious practices, and way of life. We've sought to be vulnerable rather than guarded. To be real rather than inauthentic. To reconcile our conflicts rather than ignoring them. In the process, we've gained a family member rather than just provided care for an aging parent.