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Caregiving, Marriage and the Third Act

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What does it mean for caregiving when seniors cohabitate, but skip marriage?

By Leslie Eckford

One of the many things that Amanda Lambert and I have learned while writing our upcoming book “Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home” (Publication date November 8, 2017) is that there are many new challenges for families and caregiving now and in the near future. In Aging with Care, we discuss a multitude of real world ideas to help families find the best caregiver for the elder in their life. We also approach how families and elders face and manage a world of social change that impacts care at home.

Why Marry?

An example that is gaining attention is when single seniors decide to live together without getting married. (See this New York Times article “More Older Couples are ‘Shacking Up.” ) Perhaps they have been widowed or divorced. A growing number of seniors are choosing to forego the marriage ceremony and live together instead.

At an earlier age, one could argue that there are “benefits of marriage.” A younger couple may have a family and legal marriage offers religious and financial benefits and protections. For a couple who may have had a long marriage in the past, those kinds of advantages may be mute. In fact, those who choose to cohabitate may describe a process of looking at the pros and cons of a marriage license and decide that there are simply more cons than pros. Especially for those who have been through a prior divorce, living together can seem like a much easier proposition.

Blending Families

But, what happens when one of the couple faces illness and decline? How does the couple merge their resources, or not? How do adult children enter the picture to assist? An optimist might say that you would be adding more people to your family team: your new partner, and maybe your combined adult children. We’ve learned however, to be realists. Some newly formed third act families (with or without a marriage certificate) combine beautifully. But, we have also seen in later marriages that a new spouse and adult children of a previous marriage do not always gel. Factor into this equation that many adult children live far away, they may have feelings of loyalty to the previous spouse or deceased parent, they may have had very little contact with the new partner. There may be little effort to build the relationship.They do not make a great team and tensions can flare with disagreement about how care should proceed. Sadly, some families become so focused on the financial side (the house, the belongings, the money) that the person and the state of their home care get put low on the priority list.

Best Advice to Make it Work

As with late life marriages, we would advise senior couples who choose to live together to:

  • Discuss the “what ifs” openly. What if you can no longer manage your finances, mobility, speech etc?
  • Make your discussion a part of your review and updating of advance directives.
  • Make it a priority to have a family meeting and include as many of the adult children as possible to be included before medical changes force decisions.

“Shacking up” may be easier in some respects than marriage, but will be stronger with careful planning.

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