Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

When Father-In-Law Comes To Live

March 10, 2003

We are bringing my father-in-law into our home to live with us. What special adjustments will we have to make as a family? He is 91 years old, in frail health, has problems with balance, mildly suspicious when it comes to his finances, and is prone to attempt physical activities that are beyond his capability. He also is quite gracious, pleasant, appreciative and engaging.

Nick just lost his wife of 68 years. He was her primary care giver. They had health aides coming into their home on a regular schedule so they could live independently. Though grumbling at times, he met her demands for comfort and attention. The two of them, alive together, gave purpose and meaning to their later years. He will be lost without her.

My wife Darlene welcomes this opportunity to have her father in our home. In some ways, his own health has suffered because of the care giving role he assumed with my mother-in-law’s health struggles.

We also have a 16 year old at home who is nervous about the changes to his privileged lifestyle. He knows it will take some adjustment on his part - and ours - as we incorporate an aging grandfather with many needs into our household. We are going to experience first hand what it is like to be in the "sandwich" generation - care giving responsibilities on both ends of the aging spectrum.

We also have a big dog who can be too friendly and potentially can cause a fall if not educated properly.

Challenges can vary with each family circumstance. At one point, I was presumptuous enough to offer advice about how to care for an elderly parent in one’s home. Now real life begins. A column with real wisdom based on our own life experience will be written someday.

Every family is different. Past relationships are different. Personalities are different. The extent of physical and mental disabilities are different. Compared to most families, we have a good chance of having a positive experience though there are challenges.

If it had been the other way around, with my father-in-law passing first, the care giving challenges would have been much greater. It would have been beyond our ability as a family to have my mother-in-law in our home. There was a definite blessing in her going first.

Guidelines as we embark this journey.

- Acceptance. We need to accept him as a unique person with faults and differences in lifestyle. We will have to work through the initial adjustments with a spirit of compromise. We need to learn more about each other's likes and dislikes, timing of meals, food preferences, upkeep of the home, rising times, privacy, and parenting/grandparenting roles. Actually we are the ones who will be doing most of the adjusting because his ability to adapt has lessened with age.

- Privacy and dignity. With physical or memory/judgment problems, we will have to work though our own feelings as will he about intrusions into bodily privacy around bathing and toilet use. Like so many losses, this could be resisted at first but gradually can be accepted as normal and natural. There will be the rewards of discovering the joy of giving love through human touch and care.

- Personal responsibility. A few mutually discussed ground rules worked out in advance will save a lot of grief later. His responsibilities regarding his clothing, cleaning, meals, and bathroom use will be mutually understood. A frank discussion about his limitations will need to be repeated several times.

- Personal space. We brought with us furniture, pictures, his vehicle and familiar decorations from his home. We want to respect his sense of privacy and independence. We hope to include him as a member of the family and not as a guest in the home.

- Finances. We need to work through the financial issues openly and equitably so that it is not a hidden issue causing conflict and resentment. My wife will be the one to negotiate the tough issues with him.

- Sibling responsibility. My wife has one brother and his wife who live in Maryland. We need to communicate about our needs and we need to be sensitive to theirs. This is a shared responsibility. Each situation and family has its strengths and limitations. A rotation plan with planned respite and "vacations" will be important as long as Nick can travel. Open communication is the key to solving problems.

- Supporting each other. There will be plenty of times when we will feel anger, grief, guilt, fear, resentment or frustration. Recognizing and accepting our feelings as normal and natural will help us cope. We need to lean of each other as marriage partners for support. If our situation becomes particularly difficult, we can look for outside support groups and friends for understanding and ideas.

Rewards. The costs are high but so are the rewards. While my father-in-law is in our home, our family will benefit and cherish the strengthened family ties. The grandchildren have a chance to see and associate with him as they come for visits.

When there is a family tradition of caring for your parents, the children observe this and learn to love and appreciate the elderly in a positive way. An example is set.

We expect to be pushed into developing greater traits of love and selfless service. I know one thing, my wife wouldn’t have it any other way.