June 4, 2014
When we hear terms like “elder care” or “family caregiving,” many of us initially imagine adult children caring for aging parents. While elder care certainly affects families in this dynamic, a recent survey conducted by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the United Hospital Fund discovered that 1 in 5 family caregivers in the U.S. is a spouse.
The study also found that one half of spousal caregivers were over age 65 themselves, compared to just 20 percent of non-spousal caregivers. The median age for spousal caregivers was 64, a full decade older than non-spouses, whose median age was 54. In terms of gender, men were just as likely as women to be spousal caregivers.
Spousal caregiving certainly has its advantages, perhaps the most obvious of which is that the individuals are already familiar and comfortable with each other. Establishing trust and a feeling of safety between a caretaker and the individual cared for is essential. When one is being cared for by a spouse, a strong sense of trust and faith in their dependability is likely already in place. Since they tend to be in an older demographic, spousal caregivers were less likely to be simultaneously caring for a young child compared to their non-spousal counterparts in the “sandwich generation.”
Caregiving spouses did, however, face some challenges in adopting their new role. Since there was a shift in responsibilities around the home, the caretaker sometimes felt added pressure and was prone to ignoring his or her own needs while prioritizing the needs of their loved one. Conversely, the cared-for spouse often experienced guilt or unease in asking their partner for assistance, not wanting to burden or worry them.
Virtually all resources and reports focusing on spousal caretaking emphasize the importance of self-care for the caregiving spouse. When assisting someone as significant and loved as a partner, caregivers tended to ignore their own emotional and physical health or would isolate themselves from other friends and family for fear of their spouse feeling abandoned. They were vulnerable to stress, sleeping issues, and poor nutrition.
If you are the primary caretaker of a spouse or partner, do know that it is okay to ask for help and assistance for yourself. The support of family and friends is fundamental in maintaining your own health and happiness. In addition, experts warn spouses of taking on too much or feeling like they have to handle everything. Most families bring in the help of other loved ones or outside professionals, so knowing these resources are available can help ease the added weight you might feel taking on the health and care of another adult.
In the midst of their concern and commitment to caring for their partner, spouses frequently gave up their connections with other friends, activities, or communities. They wanted to ensure that their loved one felt valued and remembered, so caretakers would feel guilt or shame for making time for themselves or continuing to visit with other friends and family. However, it has been highly recommended that caregivers continue pursuing several activities they enjoy to give themselves a break and keep their emotional health in check. Partners need to keep in mind that cultivating their own identities away from their caregiving roles is perfectly normal and necessary. Maintaining one’s own health will keep you strong enough to care for your spouse, but it will also reduce strain on your relationship with each other.