How do I deal with my wife's resentment over the time I spend with my elderly father?

A fellow caregiver asked...

My father lives alone, and since I'm the only relative he has in the area, I try to help him as much as I can. I drop in on him a few times a week, do all of his grocery shopping, and take him to medical appointments. He joins us for dinner every few weeks or so and spends holidays with us. To me, this seems reasonable, but my wife resents the intrusion on our family time, complains constantly, and gets angry. Yet it's not as if I'm neglecting our family or not doing my share. This disagreement is causing a rift in our marriage. What can I do?

Expert Answer

Jonathan Rosenfeld is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco.

Your father is fortunate to have a son so committed to his well-being. Striking a balance between caring for aging parents and being there for your own family is never a simple matter. When we talk about the right way to care for ailing elders, there are no perfect answers, because what we're really talking about is value systems, which can vary greatly between individuals, families, and cultures.

Perhaps you grew up with your grandparents in your home, for example, so it seems like the least you can do for your father is to have him over regularly and help him with his errands. What's your wife's relationship with her parents like? The two of you may be operating from very different experiences, expectations, or values.

If you and your wife already have conflict in your marriage, then the argument over how much time you spend with your father probably represents a deeper fault line. Whatever the ultimate source of the problems between you, this would be an excellent time to go to couples counseling to try to resolve them.

If your marriage is generally harmonious and this conflict is an exception rather than the rule, then the two of you need to have some open-ended discussions to figure out what works for your family. You may need to understand your wife's point of view better in order to be effective in helping her see yours. It's possible, for example, that your wife feels overlooked by you, and having to share you with your father is simply the final straw. Or if your teenagers are approaching college age, she may be anticipating their impending departure, which could make it particularly difficult to tolerate any loss of precious family time. Let your wife talk openly to you about her feelings, and share your own with her. It will probably also help if you can carve out more private time for your marriage -- weekly dinners out, for example, or regular weekend getaways -- which will nurture your relationship and help you reconnect.

If your father is lonely and relies on you to fulfill all his social needs, you may want to encourage him to get involved in classes and other activities at his local senior center. If he's able, he might enjoy volunteering at the local school or soup kitchen or joining a reading group. Contact your local area agency on aging to find out more about activities for seniors in your area.