When an Ailing Spouse Cares for an Ailing Spouse

Paula Span, writer for The New York Times New Old Age Blog and other publications, recently addressed a growing issue with the aging population in an article for Kaiser Health News. With long-term care prices ever on the rise, many families are opting to care for aging loved ones at home. But couples lacking significant support from children and other family members often find themselves caring for an ailing spouse when they themselves are also ailing — a scenario that poses a number of challenges.

In some cases, like the Crieries, who Span describes in her article, family members are willing and able to offer support, but the spouse acting as caregiver refuses. In the case of Betty Crierie, who was caring for her husband suffering from Alzheimer’s, she felt she had the situation under control. Betty noted that because dementia typically has a slow progression, it can be difficult to see how bad the situation has become. Many spouses, like Betty, feel that caring for their spouse is their duty and are determined to fulfill it without any outside assistance.

The inevitable wake-up callhands

When Betty had a sudden heart attack, her children had a wake-up call. In fact, they didn’t even realize how much Betty had been handling on her own until they stepped in while she recovered. The family made the difficult decision to move their father into a nursing home, where he passed on five months later.

When a couple has been married for decades, it can seem unfathomable to consider living apart after so much time together, but it’s often in the best interests of the family. The physical and emotional demands of caring for her husband had taken their toll on Betty’s health, leaving her unable to handle the load on her own. After Leonard Crierie moved into a nursing facility, Betty visited him several times per week and continued to do his laundry. She was able to remain an active participant in his care, while reducing her own stress level and providing Leonard with a higher level of care appropriate for his deteriorated condition.

Why are spouses often reluctant to seek help?

There are a number of reasons spouses are often resistant to accepting outside help. Span’s article names a few:

  • A reluctance to spend money on care, even if the family can afford it. Many of today’s elders were raised in the depression era, leading them to live frugally
  • An attempt to protect their spouse’s dignity
  • An attempt to shield grown children from the realization of how much their parent’s health has declined
  • A fear of losing control of their relationship or their home

New funding for family caregiving may help to ease this burden. Funds will be allocated to provide training to family caregivers and to help pay for support programs like adult day care and home care. Finally, Span’s article calls for a higher level of accountability on the part of medical providers. For example, physicians should make themselves aware of family caregiving situations and keep an eye on the health of the caregiver, as well as recognize signs signaling a need for outside assistance.

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