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In Sickness and in Health: Being Your Spouse’s Caregiver is “the Biggest Challenge Your Marriage Will Ever Face”

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Most marriage ceremonies include the phrase, “in sickness and in health” – usually just after “for better, for worse.” This recent article on the website has opened our eyes to the fact that, for about 3.7 million men and women who are caregivers for their spouses, both those statements are being put to the test in ways they probably never anticipated.

One wife who cares for her husband who has suffered multiple strokes and is now battling leukemia said it this way: “The physical work of caregiving makes me tired, but I can get over that. It’s the emotional turmoil of watching my husband be different than he had been, and seeing the change in this vibrant man who I love so much.”

3.7 Million Spousal Caregivers Nationwide

We’ve written many articles for the AgingOptions blog about the overwhelming challenge of caregiving – a challenge that is far greater for spouses. In researching this topic, we found this 2015 AARP study called Caregiving for Older Adults, which reported that more than 34 million Americans are providing care (or have done so within the past 12 months) to someone age 50 and older, and of those about 3.7 million are caregivers for their own spouses. The AARP report shows that, when providing care for a non-relative, roughly one caregiver in six – about 17 percent – describes their caregiving role as highly stressful. But when the person you’re caring for is your spouse, that number jumps to more than 40 percent. People serving as their own spouse’s caregiver experience a kind of emotional strain to which few can relate.

As writer Sally Abrahms points out in the article on the website, as life expectancy grows, the number of older people caring for a spouse will rise as well.  (This also parallels the expected increase in the numbers of people with dementia: currently there are about 5.8 million affected Americans but over the next three decades that figure is projected to triple.) The burden of being both spouse and caregiver is heavy indeed. “While being a caregiver to a parent is tough, when it’s your beloved husband or wife, ‘In addition to all the usual challenges that come with caregiving responsibilities, it’s also a big change in the marriage relationship,’ says John Schall, CEO of Caregiver Action Network, a national family caregiver organization. ‘There are new issues of dependency and it can get in the way of intimacy. The marriage dynamic has to adapt to a new normal.’”

Spousal Caregivers Experience “An Ongoing Ordeal”

Abrahms quotes one woman who provided care for her husband for 11 years. “When a spouse dies it’s horrible but it’s over,” this wife said. “When the spouse has a chronic condition or all of a sudden something serious happens, it is an ongoing ordeal. The couple doesn’t know what to expect from each other. It totally changes the game from what it was. There can be excruciating loss.” For another couple spotlighted in Abrahms’ article, the husband as caregiver had to learn to deal with some extremely practical and emotionally difficult routines: “getting [the wife] out of bed, bathing and dressing her, checking wounds, making sure she is fed, and helping her to the toilet.” The husband also found he had to adjust to being “a solo act” when it came to all the chores of daily life, including work, household chores, grocery shopping, bill paying, providing care coordination and so on. “There is no one else I would rather be with,” this man said, “but it wears on you.”

In her article, Sally Abrahms advises caregivers to examine their emotions honestly. “If you’re caring for your spouse, it’s normal to feel conflicted emotions, experts say – everything from guilt to resentment to anxiety and even jealousy of other happy couples.” This reality makes it extremely important that the spouse providing the care find the right place to express emotions in helpful ways. “It’s normal to feel resentment,” she says, “but you have to avoid taking out anger on your spouse (who likely already feels like a burden).”  She recommends finding support groups in your community or online through resources such as the Well Spouse Association or Caregiver Action Network. Spouses and other caregivers can also find help on websites related to specific conditions, such as the Alzheimer’s Association website.  It may be wise to spend time with a professional counselor or with a member of the clergy, or even a sibling or close friend.

Spousal Caregivers: A Few Practical Tips

Abrahms also offers a few practical suggestions to help couples cope.

  • “Focus on what you can still do as a couple,” she advises. “You both love the symphony, but your husband can’t sit for hours? Go to the concert and leave at intermission. Or listen to your favorites at home. Your wife can’t fly? Plan shorter car trips.”
  • Another imperative: “Ask for help.” Because many friends may not know what you’re going through or what you need, “you will often need to take the initiative. If you’re feeling lonely, ask a friend out for coffee, a movie, a walk or make time for a long phone call.”
  • It’s important that you find ways to give your infirm spouse some independence. “No adult likes to feel dependent, so give your spouse whatever control they can handle,” says Abrahms. “If your spouse has difficulty walking or with fine motor tasks, consider investing in voice-enabled smart-home technology, so they don’t have to ask you to turn on the lights, play music, or change the TV channel. Other devices can help remind them when to take medication, to lock the door, and more.”
  • “Find caregiving-specific resources,” the article advises. Some local museums and theaters have special programs designed for people with dementia and their family caregivers. Other places have “memory cafes” where “family caregivers and those with memory issues gather and engage in structured activities or conversation.” We found this link to several Puget Sound area memory cafes here.
  • Finally, take advantage of respite care. You may also be able to find respite services via your local Area Agency on Aging, or from other resources such as the Family Caregiver Alliance.

Spousal Caregivers: Don’t Overlook Planning for the Future

If you’re a caregiver for a spouse, or if you know someone who is, we suggest you read this helpful article and follow some of the links. Remember, when it comes to dealing with the difficult emotional issues of providing care for the person you love most, you need to know you’re not alone.

Here at AgingOptions we want you to know that you’re not alone on your retirement planning journey. We offer a full range of services to help you. One of the best ways to discover our comprehensive approach to planning for your senior years is to attend one of our LifePlanning Seminars, offered at no cost and with no obligation whatsoever. You’ll learn valuable information about how to make sure every aspect of your retirement plan is addressed, including housing choices, medical needs, legal affairs, financial security and family communications. With a LifePlan in place, you’ll have the solid, strong retirement blueprint you need to build the retirement you’ve dreamed about.

Click on the Live Events tab on this website for dates, times and locations, and for online registration. You can also contact our office any business day and we’ll be glad to answer your questions. We’ll look forward to serving you soon!

(originally reported at

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