When couples vow to stand by each other in sickness and in health, chances are, few imagine the pledge will be put to the test. But what happens when a husband is stricken with a serious illness and his spouse’s role switches from wife to caregiver?
Deb, who has been a family caregiver for her husband, Rodney, since he was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease 7 years ago, knows firsthand what that shift means.
Married for 22 years and the parents of two teenagers, the couple have seen their relationship and family dynamics change dramatically with Rodney's illness.
The worst part, Deb explained, is “watching him suffer with this horrible disease.” The fatigue of providing care for Rodney robs her of energy she needs to care for her children, and she thinks that’s not fair to them. She also feels lonely. “I miss going places together and the relationship we had as husband and wife.” A good day, she said, is when Rodney can interact, laugh and share.
She can’t remember the last time she did something for herself.
Appearing on the syndicated talk show Dr. Phil, AARP caregiving expert and psychologist Barry Jacobs advised Deb that family caregivers must prioritize themselves first. “In most cases, spousal caregivers have it the toughest,” he said.
When caregivers fail to pay attention to their own emotional state, they often can’t be fully there for their loved ones. The strain can take a toll on a marriage. Jacobs said the nation’s 40 percent divorce rate rises when a spouse has a serious illness.
To help relieve the stress and loneliness of the caregiving experience, Jacobs said on the program, people should use AARP’s resources, including a toll-free line, 877-333-5885 (7 a.m.–11 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday-Friday).
Jacobs also suggested that those looking after loved ones turn to AARP’s Caregiving Resource Center, which includes an online caregiving community, and the book Meditations for Caregivers, by Jacobs and his wife, Julia Mayer.
As the population ages, situations like Deb’s “are very common,” Jacobs said. “If you’re not currently a family caregiver, at some point in your life, you either will be or you yourself will need a caregiver.”