Today’s post about caregiving for a spouse or partner was written by Paula Marie Usrey. She is a retired associate professor of communication, a TEDx speaker, and the author of Refusing to Be Invisible: Life Planning Empowerment Strategies for Women 50+. Please enjoy!
First, a little about my background. After retiring from teaching, I was planning to start a business and do some traveling with my husband. But then, without warning, he developed some serious health issues. Initially, I supported my spouse by arranging and driving him to medical appointments. I also assisted him with other daily needs, such as helping him back on his feet when he fell.
Then my husband’s condition worsened; my once strong, independent guy needed round-the-clock care. I cleaned him when he soiled himself, assisted him when getting out of bed, and took care of his most intimate needs. I attended doctor’s appointments with him and did my best to manage all his care needs.
Although he passed three years after I had retired, he had periods where he did not need nearly as much assistance. However, I still had to pick up some of the tasks my husband had previously handled. This included mowing the lawn, doing our taxes, and handling general home maintenance.
Overall, my time as a caregiver was exhausting and stressful, often overwhelming, and challenging. But it was also deeply rewarding. I later learned that my experiences were similar to what other women who become spousal caregivers have experienced.
Health Risks for the Overwhelmed Spousal Caregiver
Though most of us never think about becoming a caregiver for our life partners, it is a reality that many women will face. And for those who become caregivers, approximately 55% undertake this role without the help of family members or home health aides. Even for those women who receive some support, the health risks of spousal caregiving are similar.
Some of my friends who were caregivers for their spouses and had support echoed some of the same experiences as those of us who had little or no help. They reported being overwhelmed, isolated, exhausted, and stressed. Reporting on an analysis of 168 studies, one article suggests that spousal caregivers are more likely to face difficulties. Such as “depression, lower levels of psychological well-being, and more significant physical and financial burdens.”
For women 50+ still working, caregiving demands can become more than they can handle. Coping with the workplace dynamics as a woman over fifty can be challenging enough. Then, when you add the stress of caregiving, some women end up retiring before they had intended to do so. Like a few women I have known, some will try to keep pushing themselves until they are about ready to drop.
Selfcare and Help When You Are the Caregiver to a Partner
An often-recommended strategy to reduce caregiving stress levels is to get some exercise. Rain or shine, I took brisk walks nearly every day as my husband napped. Sometimes I would see another spousal caregiver in the neighborhood who shared that walking also helped her with stress levels.
AARP suggests asking someone to take over for a short time when caregivers need a break and looking into various support resources. These online sources include Community Resource Locator and Well Spouse Association website. In retrospect, I wish I had accepted or sought some of the help I really did need.
Communication Challenges with Family Members
Changing communication dynamics can complicate our caregiving roles. Even though my husband tried to be appreciative, I could hear the frustration in his voice. He hated feeling helpless.
Sometimes he got angry—not at me, but at his situation. Other times, he got depressed. Trying to maintain supportive and encouraging communication was difficult at times. A couple of other spousal caregivers told me they experienced similar communication challenges.
Another test many of us experience is dealing with well-meaning family members and adult children. They might offer unsolicited advice or question whether we have done enough to provide appropriate care. I heard comments like, “Why don’t you let Dad eat whatever he wants?” (My late husband was diabetic.) Or, “Are you sure you gave Dad the right medication or amount?”
Sometimes these well-intended comments can feel more like meddling or criticism. Yet, in a caregiving role, we have to work hard to prevent these feelings from getting under our skin; otherwise, we only end up adding more stress to our load.
Processing Unsolicited Comments When Acting as Caregiver
A 2022 Daily Caring article suggests that sometimes adult children feel helpless or even guilty “for not participating in their dad’s care.” Others may be in denial that their parent needs the degree of care we might be providing. And sometimes, our adult children or stepchildren experience a complex mix of feelings they don’t know how to express.
As I realized that most of the comments about my husband’s care were well-intentioned, I tried not to take most comments personally. In retrospect, I wish I had also recognized and talked with my husband’s children about some of their feelings and concerns. It is difficult for everyone when a spouse and parent are seriously ill.
Ultimately, Caregiving is a Deeply Rewarding Experience
Despite all the difficulties accompanying spousal caregiving, it can be a time of increased closeness and trust. Other spousal caregivers I have spoken with have expressed similar feelings of increased closeness.
While caring for my late husband, he told me he realized I was working hard and doing my best to support and care for him. I told him that I appreciated how difficult his situation was for him. To be utterly dependent on me sometimes. I believe it was a deeply meaningful time in our relationship as we learned to trust and understand each other in new ways. As I recall this period in our lives, I am reminded that each day we spent together was a gift.
Have you played the role of caregiver to someone dear to you? Please share your experiences in the comments.
More to Read:
Paula Marie Usrey founded Boomer Best U to help promote positive aging and fight age discrimination. She has also given a TEDx presentation on how to live your best life at any age. Paula recently retired as an Associate Professor of Communication from Umpqua Community College.