In sickness and in health

In a fraction of a second a tiny blood vessel in the brain can burst and cause a stroke. The consequences of that event can ripple far beyond the person who experienced it. In the blink of an eye, a person’s marital relationship can change from a more-or-less equal partnership into an unbalanced dynamic that can cause stress in the marriage.

Spouses can get thrust into the caregiving role, due to a sudden illness like a stroke or a chronic condition like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. Spousal caregivers might face situations other caregivers do not, such as needing to renegotiate marital roles.

“So many spouses are unaware of their potential risk of caregiver stress because they don’t see themselves as caregivers,” says Bruce Mahony of Home Instead Senior Care in Toronto. “There are tips that can help spouses understand their role, the stresses they may face as a caregiver, and how that stress might lead to their own more serious health issues.”

Stress among family caregivers is prevalent but frequently goes undetected and untreated. More than two million Canadians currently provide care to a loved one with chronic health problems or disabilities. Seventy per cent of caregivers acknowledge that providing care to their loved one has an impact on their stress levels.

“It’s important for caregivers to understand that stress can impact one’s ability to care. If they don’t care for themselves, they may put their loved ones at risk. Whether it’s support groups, stress management techniques, or respite help, caregivers need to realize the importance of managing their own health, too,” adds Scott Johnson, Managing Director of Home Instead Senior Care in Halton.

Spousal caregivers have identified four main areas of caregiving stress: spousal criticism; in-law issues; juggling a full-time job with caregiving; and loneliness. Since they also live with the person they are caring for, which doesn’t provide for any breaks physically or emotionally, spousal caregivers often feel much more stress. Home Instead Senior Care recommends these tips to cope:

Turn to community resources for help. Contact your family doctor who can direct you to resources to tap into for respite care, home care, and more.

Make sure you and your spouse have valid wills, living wills and powers of attorney documents so there’s no question who has the legal right to make decisions on your and your spouse’s behalf, should either of you become incapacitated.

If you can’t leave the house to take a walk or hit the gym, invest in 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 his/her own while you’re away from the house.

Plan monthly or quarterly get-togethers with your friends for dining, shopping, 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.

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. It is important that as a caregiver, you maintain your own health, because if you aren’t well, you will be less able to help your spouse.