As couples age, it would be convenient if aging occurred at a similar pace. Unfortunately, that is more than often not the case, and as a result, one spouse may need to fill the role of spouse and caregiver. This new role can quickly become overwhelming as often the other spouse has a chronic condition that will remain with them for the rest of their life, and without help, the toll it takes on the healthier spouse can easily lead to their decline.
According to the National Institute on Aging, 79% of people age 70 and older have at least one chronic condition, including arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, respiratory diseases, and cancer. The risk of developing other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or another form of dementia, also increases with age. As these conditions and diseases progress, many people will begin to need assistance with basic daily tasks, increasing the likelihood of one person acting as a spouse-caregiver. A report by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving reported that one in 10 caregivers is a married person who looks after their spouse. While caregiving can be rewarding for many individuals, it can also be stressful. According to the American Psychological Association, spouse-caregivers experience a 23% higher level of stress hormones. Understandably, this affects their health and close relationships. It’s not uncommon for marriages to flounder as roles and responsibilities often change. This change, compounded with the stress of disease, can be overwhelming.
Challenges of Spousal Caregiving
Learning how to take on the role of being a spouse-caregiver can take practice. The Family Caregiver Alliance compiled some of the most common challenges for individuals who are caregivers for their husband or wife. Here are a few things you might experience when caring for your spouse:
Caregiving can be emotionally draining even for professionals. Caregiving for a spouse brings additional layers of relationship stress and emotional exhaustion. While it’s common for people who experience diseases that affect their quality of life to experience depression, studies have suggested that caregivers who attend to a spouse are at risk of depression just as much as their loved one.
The spouse-caregiver role can be physically demanding. It can include lifting another adult for bathing and dressing or assisting with walking and standing. Regardless of age, this can put a strain on the physical health of a spouse-caregiver. In addition, long-term stress and anxiety, which are common in caregivers, can lead to poor quality sleep, increased blood pressure, and unhealthy eating habits.
Changes in intimacy
While all marriages experience changes in intimacy at one point or another, a shift in roles—from an established partnership to spouse-caregiver and patient—can influence these changes. Sexual intimacy can also change when a relationship of mutual responsibility becomes more one-sided. Stress, physical challenges, and fatigue that come from caregiving can cause a loss of sexual interest. However, physical touch and emotional support remain crucial to any healthy relationship.
Loss of life-balance
Disease and illness can influence every decision within a family structure. As roles within the marriage shift and one takes on new responsibilities, that balance can feel uneven. Juggling friendships and individual interests on top of caregiving can be an added challenge.
Tips for Creating Balance
Becoming a spouse-caregiver can create strain in any marriage. However, there are ways to manage these situations. If you’re in this situation, consider using these tactics to help you navigate any challenging situation:
- Prepare for change. An illness or diagnosis can create relationship stress, especially in a long-established partnership, like a marriage. Once you receive a diagnosis, be sure to have an honest conversation with your spouse about the future. When the situation changes, have another conversation. The sooner you can have a conversation about how the relationship is changing, the sooner you’ll be able to identify solutions that work best for both individuals.
- Reassess your roles. Responsibilities within the marriage may evolve by necessity as one person’s abilities diminish. It’s best to review household responsibilities and determine which spouse will be responsible for each task. These roles will undoubtedly need to be readdressed throughout the progression of the disease or condition.
- Separate caregiving from being a spouse. Caregiving is a full-time job. But when you are caring for a spouse, the strain becomes more overwhelming and emotional. Boundaries are important. Setting times during the day where the discussion is not about medical issues make it easier. Making time to do enjoyable activities together can also help bring friendship and emotional intimacy back into the relationship.
- Seek support. Becoming a spouse-caregiver is a life-changing event that may require professional support. Both individual and couples counseling can provide the tools necessary to manage stress and promote growth and happiness.
- Avoid isolation. Caregivers are at an increased risk of isolation and depression. It is especially prevalent if the patient/loved one is homebound. To avoid caregiver loneliness, exhaustion, and caregiver burnout, join support groups, schedule outings and phone calls with friends, and make time for yourself.
- Create joy. While your life and marriage might feel different than they used to, find a sense of joy, both individually and together. Whenever possible, find time for fun.
- Create a care plan. Having a plan can help reduce feelings of stress and ensure that both spouses understand the expectations in terms of treatment and responsibilities. The care plan might include moving to an assisted living community or scheduling respite care to support the caregiver.
If moving to an assisted living community becomes the ultimate decision, we recommend you reach out to a member of our team for support. Molly Fisher, Director of Program Innovation and Education, brings a wealth of experience to our team. She builds programs to help our residents and provides education and resources to support our families and their loved ones. Even after move-in, we continue to provide support for our families as care needs change or need adjustments.