Ask Dr. Jillian: “Help! My elderly father just moved in with us, and now I feel like I have another child.”

Adults |

My elderly father can’t safely live on his own anymore and just moved into my household. We were already a family of four with two young children, and now it feels like I now have a third child. I love my father dearly, but it’s absolutely draining both myself and my partner. It feels impossible to manage our chaotic life at home with our children while also worrying about taking care of him and keeping him safe. My partner and I already had limited time to spend together, and I already rarely had any “alone time,” and now I feel like I have none. I don’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings, but I feel like I’m drowning and have no time to take care of my family well, much less myself and my relationship. How do I navigate this without hurting my Dad’s feelings?

Your situation is undoubtedly difficult, but there are certainly some ways to increase everyone’s happiness here. First, think about putting on oxygen masks on an airplane. Airlines instruct you to put on your own mask first, because frankly, if you are trying to put on your kids’, you won’t get enough oxygen and you will lose consciousness. Spoiler alert: you can’t help anyone when you’re passed out. The moral of the story here is to put your oxygen mask on first. You can’t be helpful to your children, your partner, or your father if you’re not taking good care of yourself. When you suffer, everyone else suffers. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but you can’t be your best self to help them if you’re not taking care of yourself effectively. If you also work, your performance there as well as your social relationships may also begin to suffer. 

You want to be able to “show up” for and care for your loved ones as best you can. In order to do that, you need to schedule and prioritize regular alone and self-care time. This means not letting it be the first thing to get pushed back every time something comes up where you feel you are needed. You simply can’t help your father, nurture your romantic relationship, care for your children, or perform effectively and enjoy your work life (if you have a job) long-term if you’re not performing regular necessary maintenance on yourself. This means prioritizing yourself when you need to. Self-care is not selfish, it is showing respect to yourself while also ensuring you can take care of others the way you want to.

It can be great to have regular outings alone with only your partner (like date nights), with each of your children independently and together, with your father, and with your friends. It is also important to remember that if dementia begins to set in with your father, personality changes including increased highly-emotional reactions are very common. As hard as it is, try not to take it personally if your father reacts angrily to you more frequently than he used to, and try not to overreact. Also remember that the more overworked, tired, or stressed you are, the more prone you are to irritability, increased reactivity, and shorter patience with others.

Lastly, your father does not need to consume all your free time. It’s time to set some boundaries that will inevitably help everyone in the long run, even if you feel like you run the risk of disappointing someone temporarily. Living with aging parents and getting used to having them around 24/7 again is tough, but there are ways to set boundaries, prioritize self-care, your relationships, and inevitably thrive.