As we age, there is an increased risk of developing a disabling chronic condition, which often leads half of a married couple to become a spouse-caregiver. According to the National Institute on Aging, 79% of people age 70 and older have at least one of seven chronic conditions, including, arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, respiratory diseases, and cancer. The risk of developing other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease or another form of, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease, also increases with age. As these conditions and diseases progress, many people will begin to need assistance with basic daily tasks. For married couples, this usually means one person will become a caregiver to a spouse. 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, which affects their health and their 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 some 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 expect to experience when caring for your spouse:
Caregiving can be emotionally draining even when done professionally. Caregiving for a spouse brings additional layers of emotional distress, which can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion. It’s common for people patients who experience diseases that affect their quality of life to experience depression. However, studies have suggested that caregivers who attend to a spouse are as equally at much risk of depression as their loved one suffering from a debilitating illness.
Caregiving is a physically demanding role. It can include lifting an individual for bathing and dressing and engaging in more physical activity like walking and standing. This can put a strain on the physical health of a spouse caregiver, especially as they age. In addition, long-term stress and anxiety, which are common in caregivers, can lead to poor quality sleep, increased blood pressure, and unhealthy affect 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 comes from caregiving can cause a loss of sexual interest. However, physical touch and emotional support remain crucial to any healthy relationship.
Loss of 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 a caregiver to a spouse, you might consider using these tactics to help you navigate any difficult or challenging situation:
- Prepare for change. An illness or diagnosis can put pressure and stress on a relationship, especially in a marriage. Once you receive a diagnosis, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your spouse about your future. This is a conversation that can be revisited whenever the situation changes or when new problems need to be addressed. 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. While these may need to be readdressed throughout the progression of the disease, it’s a good place to start.
- Separate caregiving from being a spouse. Caregiving is a full-time job, but when you’re a caregiver to a spouse, there need to be boundaries. This might mean setting times during the day where the discussion is not about medical issues. 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. This becomes an added risk 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, it’s important to find and create joy, both individually and within your marriage. Whenever possible, create time for fun.
- Create a care plan. Having a plan can help reduce feelings of stress and ensure that both spouses have the same expectations in terms of treatment and responsibilities. This might include discussing a move to an assisted living community or scheduling respite care to support the caregiver.
Spousal Caregiving at Maplewood Senior Living
Maplewood Senior Living communities offer additional support for spouse caregivers. Access to 24-hour medical care, support groups, and dining help relieve some of the burdens on caregivers and give couples time to spend together. To learn more about our offerings or to schedule a tour, please contact us.