Growing old with your loving husband or wife is a relationship goal we can all relate to. At some point along the way, all the component pieces that go into building a life together begin to coalesce into a narrative. And it’s an undeniably romantic notion for two people, who are bound together by many years of partnership, to look back and enjoy the fruits of that story side-by-side. Of course, the challenges that come with aging can temper that joy and satisfaction. For many, the idea of physical and mental decline is frightening. And they find great comfort knowing there’ll be a devoted partner by their side until the very end. But, as is often the case, those challenges aren’t always equally distributed.
The Spouse as Caregiver
When you think of a family caregiver, the image that most likely comes to mind is one of an adult child taking care of an elderly parent. But a 2014 study conducted by the AARP found that one in five family caregivers is a spouse. And those people who care for their spouses are often worse-off than other family caregivers. The same study notes:
“Spousal caregivers are particularly vulnerable because they are older, have lower educational levels and less income, and are less likely to be employed than non spousal caregivers. Spousal caregivers are more likely than non spousal caregivers to provide assistance with medical/nursing tasks such as medication management and wound care. Yet they are less likely to receive support from family and friends and are far less likely to have home visits from health care professionals and aides.”
This disparity is due in large part to the intimate nature of the relationship. It’s often seen as the spouse’s duty to provide this kind of care. As a result, they don’t receive the same support or gratitude other family caregivers might enjoy. This leads to a host of other problems not typically seen by family caregivers.
Spousal caregivers often report feeling very alone in their roles, despite spending nearly all their time with their significant other. The change in relationship – from lover to nurse – is often the culprit. No longer are you partners. Instead, one relies almost completely on the other. It’s not uncommon for caregivers to struggle with feelings of great loss, as if they’re suddenly caring for a completely different person. This is especially true for spouses who care for dementia patients. The associated loss of companionship and intimacy can also be devastating. Spousal caregivers can also grow to resent the needier member of the relationship. So how do spousal caregivers protect their marital relationship while still acting as a caregiver?
One of the best strategies for maintaining a marital relationship during caregiving is to strictly compartmentalize your roles whenever possible. Caregiving duties – from feeding, to toileting, to bathing – should be accomplished quickly and efficiently. Then, set aside dedicated time where you and your spouse can connect as a couple, apart from whatever malady is responsible for the current state of affairs.
Spousal caregivers also need to me disciplined in minding their own health. It’s common for the healthy caregiver to ignore their own needs for the sake of their needier partner. Ultimately this does both people a disservice. Make time for yourself, even if it’s in short increments, every day. Go on a walk by yourself for 30 minutes. Drink your coffee while reading the paper. Whatever small actions you can take that make you feel like a normal person can be immensely helpful.
That sense of responsibility driving spousal caregivers can also be a source of tremendous guilt. And that guilt can prevent caregivers from asking for help that might be readily available. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family to pitch in where they can. Even if it’s running a simple errand. Short term respite care can also be a helpful resource for spousal caregivers, as even short breaks can be restorative.
Don’t Give Up
Supporting a spouse through caregiving is a selfless act that embodies the best of what marriage can be. But that tough job shouldn’t be handled alone. If you’re taking care of your spouse, mind your health and ask for help whenever you can. By taking care of yourself, you’ll be taking better care of the one you love the most.