The Spouse as Caregiver

We all hope to experience a wonderful retirement, but what happens when one partner becomes ill and needs ongoing care?  Retirement can involve an unwelcome surprise that may derail dreams of an anticipated time of relaxation and joy.

As couples age, the likelihood that at least one of the two will need assistance to stay independent and healthy becomes a greater concern.  Most of the time, there is one person in the couple who requires more assistance than the other, which means that one ends up becoming a caregiver as well as a partner.  This is a big adjustment for both of them as they navigate what this means for their adjusted life together and their relationship.

Being a caregiver for your partner can be emotionally, physically, and socially draining.  The emotional connection between partners can suffer due to a recognition of changing roles in the relationship. Problems in communication also surface, as does a natural feeling of grief at having lost the loved one they knew or guilt for finding the role of a caregiver a struggle.

The emotional strain of caregiving can lead to very real health issues such as hypertension and poor sleep.  A variety of physical challenges can also manifest, such as wives having to help husbands who may be significantly larger than them, opening the door to higher rates of accidents or injuries.

On a social level, caregiving has a way of consuming life.  Both caregivers and the person being cared for can end up becoming increasingly isolated due to difficulty getting out of the house or embarrassment about their changing condition.  Activities cease and friends are lost. Caregivers of persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, for example, quickly lose their social circles.  Friends fail to visit because they do not know how to talk about caregiving, and the behaviors of a person diagnosed with memory loss may be scary to someone who has no experience with the disease.

It’s important to maintain social contacts and keep living. This will help keep a sense of self-esteem during caregiving.

Having an online or in person support group can also be very helpful.  Find other people who have become caregivers – they can share their experience and may be a source of referrals for additional assistance.  Having more information can lead to increased confidence and better decision making.

Overall, here are a few key tips when caregiving becomes part of the equation:

  • Take care of yourself! Caregiving is stressful and can at times leave you feeling overwhelmed by frustration and anxiety. Self-care is a priority – remember the old airplane reminder: put on your oxygen mask before you help anyone else.
  • Create a plan for the future. While focusing on the immediate situation, it is a good idea to think about what will happen in the future.  Will you be your partner’s primary caregiver?  Will you allow others to help you?  What will happen if you need support yourself?  What coverage is provided by your long-term care insurance policy?
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Caregiving guilt can feel all-consuming.  Spousal caregivers feel guilty because of doing too little or too much. Caregivers may dislike asking for help because they want to feel like they can do it all.  They tend to put everyone else before themselves, but this is impractical and results in too much self-sacrifice.

Of course, it is not easy to ask for help.  Spouses do not want to inconvenience friends or are concerned that hiring professionals would be prohibitively expensive and not provide the optimal care needed. An invasion of their personal privacy and financial security is also an overriding concern.

However, bringing in a person to help with cleaning, cooking meals, running errands, or providing nursing duties can lighten the workload of the caregiver.

Geriatric care managers can also assist caregivers with making financial decisions, managing medical and housing needs, and ensuring the safety of their loved ones.

We all need a break from the daily grind, especially those who provide spousal care. Respite care can help provide that needed break.  Respite care simply means someone else provides relief, allowing the caregiver to have some time for him or herself.  This care can be provided at home by a friend, family member or paid services in a care setting, such as adult day care or a residential facility.

If caregiving may be a part of your life, start by doing some research.  The following are some popular support groups that are worth exploring:

  • Well Spouse Association, a national organization made up of spousal caregivers coping with a broad range of medical conditions
  • has a section on its website that helps caregivers connect with elder-care experts and family caregivers
  • offers caregiving tips, advice, and support
  • offers resources for free caregiver counseling and support groups

Remember that Armstrong, Fleming & Moore, Inc. is here to help when you need to make these important decisions.

Presented by Mary Moore, CFP®