For most of the past two years, Jeff Roberts, 53, spent virtually every weekend away from his wife Doris, also 53. Not for sales trips, not for hunting with the boys and certainly not for anything illicit. Jeff has been caring for his 86-year-old parents at their nearby home in southeastern Ohio. After his mother had a stroke in 1999, the family hired a five-day-a-week live-in caretaker for her and her husband, a dialysis patient who had lost one leg. (He died last June.) When the care worker took off on Friday nights, Jeff stepped in.
This routine was burdensome in many ways but especially in the toll it took on the Roberts' marriage of 33 years. "My wife and I started out working as a team," says Jeff, "but gradually she became more and more distant, a little more resentful of the parents and jealous of the time I spent with them." Doris, whose surviving parent--her mother--is still healthy, wishes she could have been more understanding. "Jeff's parents were wonderful people, and this is an obligation you feel in your heart," she says. "Even so, this is a phase of your marriage that you hear about, you read about, but you're never really ready for."
The Robertses are one of a fast-increasing number of boomer couples who are feeling the strain of dealing with elderly parents no longer able to manage on their own. The challenges range from running errands locally a few hours a week to making arrangements from a distance or, in the most difficult cases, providing long-term live-in care for an Alzheimer's patient.
"This now affects many more families," reports Donna Wagner, a professor of gerontology at Towson University in Maryland. "Being a caregiver is becoming normative in the work force." It is also becoming even more common among nonworking spouses, who have traditionally taken this role. Sandra Timmermann, a gerontologist at MetLife's Mature Market Institute, notes that 75% of caregivers are women: "Often just as women are ready to break out with their own careers, an elderly parent's needs intervene. It leaves the marriage in the lurch."
Among the most squeezed by this problem are couples in the "sandwich generation," who must balance the needs of parents and young children. Nancy and Tony Milecki, 35 and 37, of Palatine, Ill., have been helping out her parents for the past five years while taking care of their kids, 6 and 3. Nancy's dad is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and her mom has dementia. Since Nancy, a homemaker, and her sister each live about 15 minutes from their parents, they do all their laundry, cleaning and shopping. Tony, a construction-industry sales rep, helps too. "There are days when I've been at my parents' all day, and I'm on a short fuse, and my husband and I don't get along," says Nancy. "We're angry at all the stuff not done at home." Says Tony: "We both work on having empathy. But I feel like we're not running our lives; our lives are running us."
Compounding such strains are pressures that discourage couples from expressing how they feel. "They're afraid to say the parent is the source of stress in a marriage," says Pauline Boss, a family psychologist at the University of Minnesota, "because their culture has taught them it's their duty to take care of family." Doris Roberts agrees: "You feel selfish saying 'I'd like to be out playing golf today.' You think, Good children do this."