Dealing With Your Date’s Elderly Parents

If your partner’s folks are in decline, showing support without crossing family boundaries can be difficult. We’ll show you how to proceed with caution.

By Bob Strauss

s more and more people delay serious dating and marriage until their late 30s or 40s (blame the Internet, today’s high-powered work environment and other factors), they run into a problem that
There’s no rule that says you have to accompany your significant other for every visit
virtually never cropped up 50 or 100 years ago: dealing with each others’ elderly parents. If you’re lucky, your partner’s folks are mellow, sociable and enjoying a well-funded retirement. If you’re less fortunate, they’re crotchety, ill-tempered and disapproving of both you and your partner. In the worst-case scenarios, the family may be dealing with chronic illness, severe financial straits or Alzheimer’s, which can have a continuing, deleterious impact on your relationship.

And it gets even worse. Not only do you personally have to deal with your partner’s parents, you also have to be supportive of your significant other, who may have deeply mixed feelings about caring for his or her folks (especially if other siblings live far away or there are still resentments held over from a less-than-ideal childhood). How can you cope with all this baggage? Here are some suggestions:

Try To Limit Your Exposure
Ideally, your partner’s parents live far enough away that they can easily be visited, but can’t casually drop in whenever they feel like it (picture the across-the-street in-laws from Everybody Loves Raymond). There’s no rule that says you have to accompany your significant other for every visit and help with the chores, but making a noticeable ghost of yourself isn’t a good option, either. You may be past the point of caring what your potential in-laws think of you, but your partner isn’t, and it’s not fair to make that person shoulder the burden alone (even if said parents are merely irritable and unlikeable rather than genuinely physically or mentally ill).

Be Available To Your Partner…
Nathan Wei, a doctor from Atlanta, says: “My father, a formerly brilliant Ph.D. in organic chemistry, is confined to an assisted-living facility in Philadelphia... my wife has been incredibly supportive and she calls my dad regularly to chat and offers terrific emotional support. Her father, age 90, was in very good health until he had a bout of urinary-tract sepsis two months ago. For me, talking with my wife and asking about her parents and letting her know I think about them just as I do about my father is comforting — and since neither of us lives close to our parents, the situation is especially difficult.”

...But Know How To Set Limits
Dr. James Huysman, executive director of Leeza’s Place, an organization devoted to “care for the caregivers,” offers a helpful perspective on dealing with victims
If one person walks away, the other one falls.
of memory loss and other forms of dementia: “All we can do is the best we can, nothing more or less. We cannot do the work for those we love. Live your life in a healthy way, taking care of your own mind, body and soul. That will show your partner what matters, and that is also the key to your partner’s path to dealing with loved ones.” Huysman’s advice is especially pertinent if — as so often happens — you suspect your partner’s parents may be declining physically or mentally, but your partner refuses to face up to the situation. He or she will eventually come around; all you can do in the meantime is be supportive without jeopardizing your own mental health.

Don’t Make the Situation Worse
One or two years into a relationship (if not sooner) you should have a pretty good idea about what fashion choices, personal habits, or topics of conversation send your partner’s elderly parents around the bend — so don’t get all huffy and defensive when your casual allusion to national health care results in a detailed litany of broken hips, errant diagnoses and overinflated hospital bills. By the same token, if your prospective father-in-law makes a pointed jab about your career, rise above it and don’t take the bait. This rule especially applies if you suspect your partner’s parents are on the decline; in such cases, arguing isn’t merely counterproductive, it’s self-indulgent and mean.

Leave the Kids Out of It
Dealing with elderly parents is difficult enough; the situation is even more fraught when kids are involved. There are numerous sociological studies showing that kids benefit immensely from time spent with their grandparents, so even if you can’t stand the sight of your sweetie’s folks, bite the bullet and try to stay civil when the kids are involved. Ideally, if your partner’s parents are up to it, you can drop off the kids (either at your house or theirs) and spend the rest of the day by yourself. This may not be an option if the grandparents aren’t mentally or physically up to the task of round-the-clock supervision.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Let’s say you’ve been giving the folks the benefit of the doubt for the last two or three years, but it’s become increasingly apparent that a) they’re not as healthy as they used to be and b) they’re not as mentally stable, either. The first course of action is come to an understanding of the situation with your partner; next, develop a plan of action and seek help — not only whatever help is required for the parents, be it medical, financial or otherwise, but emotional help for yourselves to get be able to get through it together. Says Dr. Huysman, “If boomer relationships are to survive the care of elderly parents, each partner must seek out counseling, support groups and a circle of friends individually so that they don’t have to lean co-dependently on each other. Leaning on each other creates pressure. If one person walks away, the other one falls.”

Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in New York City. He’s also written the Dinosaur guide on, the online information network owned by the New York Times.
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