The wedding vows spoken by many couples have a phrase that says, “In sickness and in health.”
If spoken in a religious setting it means to many that they promise, not only to their partner but also to God, that they will care for the other no matter what the realities of their lives bring. For some this could lead to the question is spousal caregiving a loving gift or a burden of duties?
Loving is a gift we give ourselves and is an investment in a fulfilling life. To go through the challenges and joys with someone who always has your back. However, when one partner has a progressive illness, the burden after years and years of spousal caregiving gets very heavy. The well spouse often has some age-related changes and challenges of his or her own. In my practice, these hardworking, dedicated spouses often don’t see to their own medical issues or social activities when focused on their loved ones.
For many years, I have had the honor and privilege of working with numerous well spouses. These well spouses eventually have difficulty taking care of themselves and distressing. Some of the adult children caring for aging parents are also trying to balance caregiving with the needs of husbands/wives, children or a career. All of these important responsibilities on top of one another can become overwhelming.
Guilt often arises when issues of self-care are discussed.
When caregivers do take care of themselves they come back to their duties with a new perspective. They also see the importance of finding ways every day to enrich their own lives. Without focusing 24/7 on their ill partner they can find calmness. Around the clock spousal caregiving begins to take a toll on both mental and physical health of the caregiver.
I have seen many well spouses die or have a serious health crisis before the one he or she was caring for died. Often this is due to not heeding the warning signs. Listening to the advice given to them by professionals or individuals in support groups can be helpful.
Individuals come to a point where they have to make some hard decisions on how to share the care. “Do I put my family member in a care facility, hire help or share the care taking with other family members?” As professional Care Managers and Family Therapists, we often have family meetings to assist with these decisions – they will be different for each couple – but they are a sign of being realistic in regard to the care needed by each person in the relationship. No matter the end decision it is about love. Love is doing what is needed, not necessarily what is wanted.
We all want to be healthy and enjoy our partners until the end of life.
The reality is none of us are superheroes. We can’t provide care when we are stressed day in and day out. Most of us can be family caregivers for our partners if we commit to a balanced life. That means sharing the care with paid caregivers or family, finding daycare options or even placement, and using the new free time for self-renewal. It means enjoying the activities that give your life meaning and purpose. It could even mean a day of volunteering, going to a spa, or going to the library. Sitting in silence without someone constantly calling your name or needing your care.
Another important concept is to learn mindfulness techniques, such as meditating, focusing on breathing, praying, and listening to guided meditations.
There are some wonderful websites and apps to help with relaxation: Calm.com and Headspace.com. Yoga is another form of mindfulness. These exercises are best done daily to assist with stress management.
If you are struggling with self-care, a few sessions with a Professional Care Manager could get you back on the health track and allow you to be a caregiver who is well in mind and spirit. The journey brings sadness because your partner can’t participate due to his or her illness, but your self-care allows both of you to have a better you! Spousal caregiving or family caregiving can be an amazing gift as long as the caregiver can learn to balance self care as well.