“For better or for worse …”

Are you supporting a relative who is also a caregiving spouse? Many long-lived couples see it as both a duty and a privilege to walk that last mile with their partner, fulfilling vows of “for better or for worse.”

That does not mean the journey is easy. Caregiving partners often experience physical challenges as they assist with bathing and walking. And there are crises, such as falls. Plus, nearly two-thirds of caregiving spouses have medical conditions of their own. In fact, the “well spouse” is often in danger of a steeper decline than the more obviously ill partner.

And there is the emotional toll. As the well spouse becomes more a nurse and the ill spouse less of a contributing partner—especially with multiyear conditions such as dementia—conflicting emotions emerge: Anger, frustration, sadness, resentment, guilt. Partners also mention loneliness with decision making, and the disheartening grind of watching a loved one suffer.

How can you help?

  • Problem solve together. Identify issues, note what needs to be done, and create action steps.
  • Take action. Assist with practical tasks and get outside help.
  • Provide a nonjudgmental ear. Name and validate feelings: “It’s natural to feel resentment (or ***). Anyone would.” Reassure your well parent that you are there for emotional support.
  • Offer respite. The well spouse needs breaks! Plan or sponsor an activity. Remove barriers to taking time off.
  • Facilitate doctor appointments. Make sure Dad is taken care of so Mom can go to the doctor, get needed lab tests. Maybe stop for a coffee before coming home.
  • Promote resilience by discussing how the well partner has made it through other life challenges. Remind them they still have those inner qualities to draw upon.
  • Support the ill partner to acknowledge positives. Celebrate anniversaries and birthdays with joy. Any expression of gratitude and love is a profound contribution, even just a happy comment about the day.