Color & Control:

Mission impossible?

Dating when caregiving is in the mix

By Mary Bart

Is it realistic to be a family caregiver and be in a relationship at the same time? A few folks I spoke to say yes, of course, it’s the only thing that keeps them sane. Some chuckle and say it’s virtually impossible to commit to any sort of dating routine or find time for intimacy. Still, others claim it isn’t worth the effort it takes to maintain a personal life.

Between working, looking after your own health, providing care and the possible backlash from family and friends who are bound to have something to say, the odds may not be in your favour. Let’s meet three different caregivers and see what they have to say.

Meet Sarah and Fillippe
Sarah is a full-time caregiver to her dad, 87 who had a stroke three years ago. Sarah met her boyfriend Fillippe through a mutual friend and they have been seeing each other for a year. Fillippe knows that Sarah’s caregiving responsibilities have to take priority and has creatively found ways to support her and keep their relationship alive.

Fillippe is prepared to be patient as he knows that she can cancel a date at the last minute, or stay in if her dad isn’t feeling well, is agitated or suddenly needs medical attention. Here are his suggestions for those dating caregivers:

1) Ask your partner what they need. Say something like: “I know that after your dad’s fall you’ve had to juggle visits to the hospital, discharge plans and extra medical appointments. Can I help you in any way? Can I bring dinner over or help with walking the dog?”

2) Be a good listener. Focus on what your partner is saying. Turn the cell phones and TV off. Even 15 minutes of blowing off steam will help any caregiver feel better.

3) Don’t try and solve everything. Dating a caregiver does not mean you have to go down the caregiving rabbit hole too. You can’t fix everything—you just need to be understanding and considerate.

• Check in daily: Send cute notes, reach out with a call or a quick text. Caregiving can be isolating and lonely.
When possible, go for a walk together, eat healthy foods, get enough sleep and limit alcohol or drug use.
• Encourage your partner to get home care services and some respite for themselves from a home care agency. Investigate what’s covered by the provincial government.
• Lend a hand. If your partner is overwhelmed with caregiving, offer to stay with their loved one while they take a bath or go for a quick walk around the block. Or how about offering to help with the laundry, shopping or cooking?
• Be as positive as you can. Avoid giving unsolicited advice or criticism.
• Say kind and comforting sentences such as: I wish I were there to give you a big hug.  How is your loved one doing? How are you doing and how can I help?

And what does Sarah say about Fillippe after one year of dating? “I was upfront from the start and he hasn’t run for the hills yet. My caregiving has been a good test of Fillippe and our relationship, I think he is a keeper.”

Meet Shawn
Shawn’s wife of 23 years, Rhonda has Alzheimer’s disease. He is 65 and she is 62. Although not a hands-on caregiver, Shawn makes sure that his wife is well taken care of at home with the help of hired caregivers while he heads off to work each day.

Shawn has been a dedicated husband, but over the past few years he has watched Rhonda’s health and their relationship decline. He still cares about her and her well-being but he’s missing the daily companionship, activities and friendship they’ve enjoyed together.

Shawn feels very much alone so he has decided to try and meet someone that can bring joy and laughter back into his life. At first he felt guilty about “cheating on Rhonda” which stopped him from moving forward, but he knows that they will never have the same relationship again. He realized he wasn’t ready to pursue a more formal or serious new relationship but would like to explore dating again. This made him more comfortable and he jotted down this list of ideas for himself:
• Be honest about your life as a caregiver before you go on a date.
• Be clear about the time and energy you have available.
• Decide who will care for Rhonda (your care recipient) when you’re on a date.
• Do you want sex, companionship or a dinner date?
• Check your online profile to see what others will see.
• Clean up your image; haircuts, clean clothes and good grooming.
• It should be fun, interesting, no pressure and make you feel good.

In Shawn’s own words, “It’s been a long time since I have asked a lady out. I am a little rusty but I’ll take the risk. I want to feel alive again.”

Meet Ruth 

Ruth, 55, is a single mom with two teenage children. She’s a high school principal and the primary caregiver to her parents. Her mother is in the early stages of Parkinson’s and her dad has mobility issues and is going blind. Her younger brother lives out of town so is not able to provide day-to-day assistance.

Ruth and her kids moved into her parent’s large farmhouse after her divorce two years ago. The arrangement was mutually beneficial. She saved money on rent and her parents helped with the kids. She took over the accounting and hiring of temporary staff for her father’s farm. As her parents started to need help, Ruth and the kids pitched in with meals, medical appointments, cleaning, and of course, their daily needs.

Through an online dating site, Ruth met and went out with several suitable partners but her parents’ health and farm required more and more of her time. After few failed attempts, Ruth realized that her dates weren’t happy being in second place and accepted that at this stage in her life, a relationship would just not work. She is now mindful of living her best life and being the best mother and caregiver she can be. Ruth has some tips for single caregivers:
• Turn off technology and reconnect with yourself.
• Stop comparing yourself to others.
• Seek out single friends or married couples who do things independently.
• Find an exercise plan that works for you.
• Think about what you really want from life.
• Always be open to change and new ideas.

As Ruth says: “Perhaps at some point, I will date again but for today I am happy, at peace and actually proud of myself. I have a new best friend and her name is Ruth. That’s right, me.”

The list of challenges faced by caregivers trying to build personal relationships is considerable. But we do know that dating a caregiver can be a real test of any potential suitor.

Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.

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