March 31, 2016
A fraction of a second is all the time it takes for a tiny blood vessel in the brain to burst and cause a hemorrhagic stroke. But the consequences of that event can ripple far beyond the person who experienced it. In the blink of an eye, the person’s marital relationship can be changed from a more-or-less equal partnership into an unbalanced dynamic that causes stress in the marriage.
The caregiving conversation often revolves around adult children caring for aging relatives, but spouses get thrust into the caregiving role, too, due to a sudden illness like a stroke or a chronic condition like Parkinson’s disease. Spousal caregivers might face situations other caregivers do not, such as needing to renegotiate marital roles or deal with in-law issues.
Let’s look at some common scenarios spousal caregivers say they face—and some practical tips for coping with them.
After Patricia’s husband had a stroke, he was no longer able to drive. As she commented in a CaregiverStress.com reader forum , “I am now the full time driver. He is very critical of my driving and everything I do. It is very frustrating and at times I don't know what to do.”
It can be hard not to take criticism personally, especially when it’s coming from your spouse. You might feel like a failure, like you can’t do anything right in your spouse’s eyes anymore.
When a spouse loses the ability to perform functions he used to do, he might feel like a failure, too. Sometimes that inability to contribute in the ways he used to could manifest as criticism of what you’re doing.
That doesn’t make incessant criticism right, but at least it might help you understand where your spouse is coming from.
To cope with unrelenting criticism, try renegotiating your marital roles:
- Find things your spouse can still do, and then give him control over them. Just because your husband can’t drive, for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t pay the bills.
- If your spouse can no longer perform tasks that require physical activity, find ways for her to contribute to strategy. For instance, if your wife cannot cook dinner anymore, let her plan menus instead.
If you can renegotiate your mutual roles so each spouse feels he or she is making a contribution to the household, you might find the criticism goes away.
Sometimes when a person becomes disabled due to illness or injury, his or her family members believe the decision-making process should include them. As a spouse, you might have to navigate some tricky political waters. Theresa found herself in this situation, commenting, “Trying to keep the peace with his siblings leaves me feeling hurt that I now have a new role in the family, almost like I'm an enemy.”
Some things to keep in mind:
- As the spouse, you generally have every right to make decisions on behalf of your husband or wife regardless of whether or not your in-laws agree with what you’re doing.
- Make sure you and your spouse have valid wills, living wills and power of attorney documents so there’s no question who has the legal right to make decisions on you and your spouse’s behalf should either of you become incapacitated.
- Instead of dismissing your in-laws’ concerns out-of-hand, try to listen and understand their perspective. Perhaps a valid message is getting lost due to a clumsy delivery.
- Try to find ways to invite your in-laws’ participation in the caregiving process so they feel they’re contributing to the situation in a positive way.
Juggling a Full-Time Job with Caregiving
It’s a myth, of course, that disability only affects seniors. When a disabling condition strikes a young person, the effects on the spousal caregiver can be devastating. As Laura said, “My husband is disabled, but not a senior, he's only 48! This is not what either of us thought our marriage would be like! I work full time and he has a home health aide, but as soon as I get home, I'm working again. I haven't found any support resources for a couple like us, in our forties.”
Tips to cope:
- Turn to community resources for help. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging. Despite its name, your AAOA group likely will have lists of resources you can tap for respite care, home care and more, no matter your age.
- Look to your faith community. It can be an excellent source of not only moral support but practical help as well. You might find many people willing to provide respite care, home maintenance and other types of assistance.
Your spouse is the one person you share everything with. If his medical condition now makes emotional intimacy impossible, you may begin to feel very alone in your marriage and your life.
Loneliness can put you at risk for medical ailments of your own. It’s imperative you eat well, exercise and continue to maintain a social life in order to stay healthy. Here’s how:
- Keep healthful food in the house. Try to plan meals and snacks in advance so you don’t resort to grabbing junk food because it’s the only thing available.
- If you can’t leave the house to take a walk or hit the gym, invest in one good piece of home workout equipment like a treadmill. This will enable you to reap the stress-busting rewards of exercise without the anxiety of wondering if your spouse is all right on her own while you’re away from the house.
- Plan monthly or quarterly get-togethers with your friends for dining, shopping, card games or another fun activity. Arrange for a family member to take care of your spouse for the time you’ll be gone or obtain professional respite care by a trained CAREGiverSM from Home Instead Senior Care®.
- Participate in online communities, such as the Caregiver Stress Relief community on Facebook. Communing with others in a virtual setting can bolster your spirit, and you don’t have to leave home to do it.
All too often, the caregiving conversation revolves around children and grandchildren caring for aging relatives. But spouses provide the bulk of care when their husband or wife becomes ill or disabled at any age, and they face special challenges in providing care. If you can renegotiate your spousal relationship, maintain good relations with the in-laws and take time for self-care, you may find your caregiving life more rewarding than you’d imagined it could be.
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