Dear Family Advisor

I'm your classic burned out caregiver and don't know how much longer I can do this.

Last updated: Oct 03, 2009

My mother-in-law has lived with us for 17 years; for almost a decade she's required 24/7 care. My husband promised her he'd never put her in a nursing home, and with the help of my husband and three teenage sons, I've been able to keep her at our home. (My brother- and sister-in-law don't help.) But I'm at the point where I cannot physically or mentally handle being her caregiver. I'm so tired and depressed.

Every time I talk to my husband about the issue, he gets angry. How do I help him soften to the idea of moving her to a nursing home?

Sadly, many families have the attitude that caregiving is primarily a "woman's job." It's going to be tough on you, and even on your marriage, but you're going to have to speak up, speak out, and stick to your guns to get yourself out of this situation.

You've unselfishly devoted yourself to your mother-in-law for years; it's time you started being appreciated. His family has gotten so used to you being the caregiver that they're taking advantage of you. Even if you didn't do a thing from now on, you've already given plenty.

Before you start to set your boundaries, mull over possible compromises. If your husband and his family were willing to pitch in, hire some part-time care, and use community resources, would you consider continuing part-time? Or if you were paid for some of your care services, would that make a difference? If so, you could remind his family that a care-nursing assistant gets $12 to $15 an hour and that you deserve something for all you've given.

If you decide you don't want to continue caregiving even part-time, which is understandable given your burnout, do your homework on alternative care options for your mother-in-law, both in-home and elsewhere. Then sit down and have a real conversation with your husband -- not in the car on the way to the hardware store, and not while the television is on.

He may have some outdated assumptions about "nursing homes." For one thing, there are many kinds of care homes, from small group homes with only four to eight residents to graduated-care homes where your mother-in-law could get more involved care as needed. I don't doubt for a second that you can find a clean, well-run home that's close enough to where you live that you, your husband, and others can check on her often.

Tell him that when you agreed to care for his mother, you never imagined it would turn into such a long-term, all-inclusive situation. Reassure him that you do care about him and his mom, but be honest about how this is getting to you physically and emotionally. Your life matters, too. Share how isolated, lonely, and unhappy you feel. Remind him that as much as he loves his mom, his first loyalty should be to you and your marriage.

If this discussion doesn't help, you may need to pull out the big guns and call a family meeting. Say what you need to say with love and kindness and emphasize that while you care deeply, it's unfair that you've been saddled with this and that you can no longer continue to be their mother's caregiver. Give them a time frame to make other arrangements. Don't argue, but do insist that they come up with a solution. Also don't let yourself get sucked in by guilt tactics and bribes. ("Just two more years!" or "How could you do this to her?")

It will be a lot easier to get your family to stop relying on you if you get out of the house. Whatever your age, consider finding at least a part-time job or a volunteer job. This will kick things into motion and open up a new chapter in your life. And you may well love the change.

Will your home life be uncomfortable for a while? Probably, but my marriage has survived many disagreements, and I find that when I stick to my guns, I earn respect -- first from myself and then from others.

As scary and difficult as this transition might be, someday you might realize it's the best thing you could have done not only for yourself but for your husband's family. Your mother-in-law may even wind up liking her care home better! Many people make friends and get involved in activities, and family relationships often improve because their family starts visiting rather than resenting.

After the initial shock has worn off for your husband, you can begin to rekindle your marriage. Let's face it, it's hard to resist someone who is once again vibrant, attractive, joyful, and affectionate. All of these feelings can return to your life once you have choices. You've been a wonderful caregiver to your mother-in-law, and she can continue to receive good care from others. But for you, it's time for some self-care.