The Challenges of being a Spousal Caregiver

When you get married, you vow to your partner to be there for them in sickness and in health. These precious vows may lead to you or your partner becoming a spousal caregiver down the road. Spousal caregivers act as caregivers for their partners who are suffering from disabilities and/or chronic illnesses. Becoming a spousal caregiver is more common than you may think, with almost 7 million current and former caregivers in North America. Being a spousal caregiver can lead to unique challenges because of the physical, emotional, and social issues it presents.

Physical Challenges

The mental load of being a primary caregiver can lead to a negative impact on physical health. Spousal caregivers, as primary caregivers to their ailing spouses, can suffer from stress due to the expectations and duties necessary to care for their loved ones. This stress can account for difficulty sleeping, poor sleep quality, dangerous weight fluctuations, headaches, increased blood pressure and many other compounding symptoms. These symptoms can drastically decrease the quality of life for the spousal caregiver and make it difficult to care for your loved one properly. This can compound with other physical challenges, for example, a physically unwell spousal caregiver may find it increasingly difficult to assist their spouse with mobility.

Emotional Impact

Being the primary caregiver for someone can be an emotionally laborious task, and it can be even more draining to act as a caregiver for their married partner. Navigating the plethora of emotions that manifest because of the duty to caring for your spouse can be draining and complex. Seniors are already predisposed and vulnerable to mental illnesses and depression, and spousal caregivers are even more likely to suffer from depression. This depression can be a result of the complex emotional task of caring for their spouse. Their spouse may no longer have the physical or mental ability to care for themselves, which can lead to demanding mobility issues and frustrating cognitive issues. They may not be able to mentally or emotionally relate to their spouse which can lead to hopelessness and resentment. They may also not be able to engage in physical intimacy or other forms of intimacy which can leave a spousal caregiver feeling abandoned and unloved. If the loved one is diagnosed with dementia, spousal caregivers may feel like they are taking care of a stranger, rather than someone they love dearly. This can lead to mourning and grief at the loss of their relationship as they know it, which can be worsened by the guilt over this emotional reaction. This emotional reaction is normal and understandable; however, it can add to the stress and emotional challenges of being a spousal caregiver.

Social Impact

As the needs of the care recipient increase, the dynamics of the household will change. The care necessary due to the requirements from ageing or a physical/ mental impairment will change the culture of the marriage. Habits of the marriage will change and adjust to suit the new normal. Favorite pastimes out of the home, such as travelling, dinner plans with friends and physical activities will become increasingly difficult. This will lead to the spousal caregiver having to choose between modifying activities to participate or abandon them if they are inaccessible. Socialization may also become stressful as the caregiver will have to take on the burden of planning and accommodating all social plans. This can be a burden of emotional labor which may make socializing more stressful than uplifting. Caregiving is not only creating accommodating plans, it can also be a sensitive and vulnerable topic. This can lead to the couple feeling embarrassed about their changing situation and it can be a sensitive adjustment.  Not all their friends and community will understand and empathize with their situation.

Becoming a spousal caregiver can be a challenging new role for any person. It requires a patient and adaptive spirit to be a source of love and support to an ailing spouse. While it is emotionally challenging to adjust to the new normal with an ill partner, it can also be a source of comfort to keep them in the home. In the next article, we will be describing some techniques and tips to help in navigating this new and difficult role.

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