Posted by: Jennifer A. Johnson
Caring for a seriously ill spouse can trigger relationship challenges. The caregiver spouse must transition from the role of a partner to that of a service provider. The spouse who needs care is now dependent on the caregiver spouse. These role changes create great stress on the marriage, as each spouse struggles with feelings of loss, fear, anger, and/or resentment. Although both spouses need support, the needs of the caregiving spouse are often overlooked at a time when they need renewed strength to support their partner.
The caregiving pressures exerted on a spouse are significant. According to an analysis of 168 studies, caregiving spouses report increased symptoms of depression, lower levels of psychological well-being, and more significant physical and financial burdens. Many new spousal caregivers will also feel the complications of isolation. Family members and close friends may not visit, not offer help, or may even ignore the couple. Health Affairs reports that 55% of older spouses experience their end of life caregiving years without help from children, other family members, or even paid home health aides.
In order to improve their situation, spousal caregivers need an accurate understanding of the condition, treatment, prognosis, and needs of their ill spouse. The information needs to come directly from attending physicians and health care providers. Caregivers need to participate in medical appointments and become an active participant in identifying health and wellness issues and potential fixes.
If family and friends are willing to help lighten the load, it is imperative for the couple to accept help. Housekeeping, erranding, providing meals, transportation, visitation, anything that can reduce the caregiver’s workload is essential. Caregivers should review your insurance plans as many give some level of coverage of home nursing services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These services can improve allow the spouse who needs care to remain more independent at home.
Spouses should share as time together doing activities that do not involve caregiving. Follow routines that are established patterns in your life together. A movie night at home with popcorn, walking the dog, or sharing morning coffee as a continued routine helps to keep a sense of continuity in the face of the unknown.
Spouse also should recognize that they are not alone in their struggle. Authors Barbara Kivowitz and Roanne Weisman have written about their journeys as the caregiving spouse of a seriously ill mate in a book entitled Love in the Time of Chronic Illness: How to Fight the Sickness – Not Each Other. Their most poignant recommendation describes shifting the notion of caregiving from a set of daily responsibilities to an act of expressing compassion. Kivowitz encourages couples to “Measure success by how well you connect, love and feel loved.” Don’t let a serious illness shake the foundation of your marriage. Identify your roles and set structure to address the issues at hand, and in the face of the unknown, you both will be better for it.
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