Caregiver Spouses Need Help!

With the aging of our population, more Americans are providing care for a husband, wife or partner who is living with health problems.

Husband with wife using wheelchair

There's a media stereotype of grouchy old couples getting on each other's nerves after years of marriage — yet University of California, Berkeley researchers who studied marriages over the course of 25 years found "an emotionally positive trajectory for long-term married couples." Psychology Professor Robert Levenson noted, "Older people in stable marriages are relatively happy and experience low rates of depression and anxiety. Marriage has been good for their mental health."

But with age comes an increased risk of illness and disability, and a greater likelihood that one spouse will be providing care for the other. Statistics show that while adult children provide most informal care for older relatives, the percentage of spouses who become caregivers is growing.

When a senior is living with heart disease, arthritis, the effects of a stroke, dementia or another disabling condition, having a spouse to help is an advantage. Caregiver spouses help keep track of their partner's doctor appointments, medications and other health routines, also lowering their loved one's risk of isolation and depression.

Studies show that being in a long-term committed relationship conveys the same benefits, regardless of marital status. Gender doesn't matter, either. Close to half of spouse caregivers today are men. And male caregivers are doing a good job. University of Oxford experts noted that even men who hadn't helped much earlier in the marriage, for example with childcare and housekeeping tasks, nonetheless were likely to step up to the plate and provide attentive care when their spouses needed it.

If you or a loved one is providing care for a spouse or partner, here are four important things to consider:

Take care of the marriage. A good marriage promotes good health, but a troubled relationship doesn't. Marital strife is stressful. It can have a negative effect on health, which, in turn, increases stress … a cycle to be avoided. It can be hard to maintain a loving, romantic relationship in the midst of medication management, wound care, helping one's spouse use the toilet, or dealing with the changes brought by Alzheimer's disease.

Couples can benefit from marriage counseling to help them nurture their relationship even as it has changed. Penn State University experts recently noted, "Looking beyond the illness, to improve the overall quality of the relationship, might have some impact on health."

Take care of the caregiver. We saw above that receiving care benefits the ill spouse, but providing care may have the opposite impact on the well spouse. For one thing, the term "well spouse" is an overstatement in many cases. Spouse caregivers frequently have health problems of their own.

Even for spouses in good health, caregiving can be hard work, both physically and emotionally. Michigan State University experts noted, "As a spouse or partner attempts to care for their loved one, the risk of injury and other negative health factors can begin to appear in the caregiver, which can be amplified by age. It is typical for a spousal caregiver to neglect their own self-care in pursuit of immersing themselves in caring for their spouse." Caregivers often fail to get enough sleep, eat well, and keep their own doctor appointments. They suffer emotional distress as their loved one and life change. (An article in the January 2019 issue of the Caring Right at Home online newsletter explains more about this type of grief.) There are special support services, such as counseling and support groups, to help these caregiver spouses.

Ask for help. Studies show that compared to adult children and other family caregivers, spouse caregivers are much less likely to seek assistance from family and friends. The caregiving spouse may believe they are the only one who can provide the best care — and the care recipient may prefer it that way! The couple may feel protective of their independence, and fear intrusion into their intimate situation.

"As a former spousal caregiver, I certainly understand the desire to take care of all of a spouse's needs," said Carol Levine, Director of the United Hospital Fund's Families and Health Project. "But the care that is needed and the responsibilities thrust upon family caregivers by our healthcare system — typically, without adequate support — are more than any family caregiver, particularly an older spouse, can handle alone."

Couple with a professional caregiver

Call in professionals. The help of family and friends may not be enough. Fortunately, there are many resources caregivers can access. Your local senior services agency can recommend care support services, as well as caregiver support. An aging life care professional (geriatric care manager) can locate services and help the couple navigate the changes in their lives.

Professional in-home care also is available — everything from home health services to assist with complex medical tasks, to less costly nonmedical care. In-home caregivers can provide assistance with personal care such as bathing, dressing and grooming; respite for the caregiver spouse; help with keeping the home safe and in good order; and in short, provide support that allows the couple to focus on their relationship and things they like to do. In-home care normalizes a couple's relationship. "We weren't sure about having a stranger in the home," reports one man whose wife is slowly recovering from the effects of a stroke. "But with the help of our caregiver, my wife and I spend more time together like we used to."

Caregiving can be hard, no doubt about it. But many studies show that the intimacy of the caregiver relationship can make a marriage stronger. Getting help makes that more likely … “in sickness, and in health.”

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.