Color & Control:

Divorce and caregiving

By Bruce Fredenburg

While divorce in later life may be a welcome change for some, it can be traumatic for others. For those who feel like they have a new lease on life, the discovery of new hobbies, clothes, experiences, and people reignites a passion they thought they lost. But for those who are blindsided by an unexpected separation, the loss of their partner can feel like a death. This is especially true for those who may have depended on their partner to take care of them emotionally, physically, or financially. These individuals haven’t just lost their partner, they’ve lost a lifeline on whom they depended for their very well-being. And this, of course, means that the adult children of the couple must get involved to support the person who is left without the resources to thrive.

Often, the person leaving the more dependent person doesn’t fully grasp how their decision will affect the adult children. Our culture generally assumes that when parents divorce after the children are grown, it won’t affect them much. But that assumption is not realistic, especially when one of the parents needs special attention. For this reason, it is crucial that those who are divorcing from a person who needs care remember that:

1. Your decision to divorce may deeply affect your adult children.

In families where one parent needs significant care, the burden of that care may shift to the adult children. In this situation, because your decision to divorce your spouse directly impacts your kids, you must inform and consult them. Arrange a family conference involving the parent’s siblings (the adult children’s aunts and uncles) so that everyone can determine where the parent will live and how the burden of care will be shared. Your adult children might adjust to the changes with more acceptance when they feel supported by other family members who are also concerned about the person who needs care. When your adult children have a say in whatever agreements are made, they feel like they have more control over an understandably stressful situation.

2. Your adult children may resent you.

Most people don’t understand how draining it can be to be a full-time caregiver, even if it the person you are caring for is someone you love. Your adult children might think you are abandoning their other parent for selfish reasons. But even if that’s not the case, they might resent you for the strain that your divorce places on their own marriage and responsibilities. Find as many ways as possible to be supportive of them and their obligations, emotionally and financially. By offering meaningful and continuous support to your adult children, you demonstrate that, while you are no longer in a relationship with their other parent, you are still a present and sympathetic parent to your children.

3. It helps if you are actively involved in the transition.

If you have been the primary caregiver, it would be to everyone’s benefit if you assist your adult children with as much of the transition details as possible. Caregiving requires a lot of management and organization, but you can shorten the learning curve by sharing the details with your adult children. You probably already communicate with your spouse’s medical professionals and know the little details that can make a big difference. If you are actively involved in helping with every aspect of the transition, you can alleviate much of the stress, anxiety, and frustration that your adult children may feel about the situation.

4. It’s not just about the caregiving responsibilities.

Your adult children will be affected by your divorce in other ways, as well. Holidays and family traditions will never be the same and you will have to navigate births, graduations, and weddings delicately.

Many adult children find that, instead of joy, these celebrations are dominated by ongoing hostility between their parents. To avoid souring future celebrations and potentially negatively impacting your relationship with your children, make a conscious decision to put aside resentments during these events. Take care not to draw attention to you or your relationship with your ex and remember to focus on the reason for the gathering.

5. Your adult child may not be happy meeting your new significant other.

If your children feel that you have abandoned the parent who needs care, they will not likely be welcoming of your new partner.
But even if they are accepting of the current situation, your children are not used to experiencing you as someone who dates and it may be difficult for them to accept the fact that you are seeing someone else. For this reason, it would be wise to wait a significant amount of time before introducing a new person to your children (and even then, it’s advisable to avoid incorporating the person into family celebrations right away). Rather, introduce the person to your children individually and allow them to get to know each other before including your new significant other in family celebrations.

Given all of these complex considerations and the value of preserving your family relationships, consider consulting a qualified family therapist experienced with both divorce and long-term caregiving issues. By keeping communication lines open, being compassionate to the feelings of your adult children, and by finding resources to help address the needs of your former spouse, you can alleviate some of the strain your family may experience.

Bruce Fredenburg is the author of Home Will Never Be The Same Again and has been a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for more than 30 years.

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