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Caregiving For Your Spouse Comes With Risks For Yourself 

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four.”   Times have certainly changed since Lennon and McCartney penned and sang those words in 1967.  Medical and healthcare strides are enabling us to live longer; much longer in many cases.  Written today those lyrics may well have said when I’m eighty-four not sixty-four.  Today chances are high that when you become a caregiver for your spouse, you will be trying to provide care for them at a much older age yourself.  Despite all of our health advances, caring for a spouse in need is a demanding, stressful responsibility that can threaten your own health.

The Journal of American Medical Association reports that if you are a spousal caregiver between 66 and 96, and are experiencing ongoing mental or emotional strain as a result of your caregiving duties, you have a 63% increased risk of dying over those people that are not caring for a spouse. 

The emotional toll combined with the physical demands of constantly assisting someone can rapidly become an issue in your own health.  You may begin to feel isolated from friends and hobbies as you spend more time caring for your loved one or you may experience guilt over your thoughts of the things you are foregoing by constantly tending to your spouse.  There can also be a great sense of loss if you are dealing with a spouse that suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

It is very important to be on the lookout for warning signs that could be affecting your own health.  Do any of these sound familiar as you spend more time caring for your spouse?

  • Ignoring your own health issues or missing doctor appointments  
  • Feelings of resentment towards your spouse or blaming them for the situation
  • Experiencing sleep loss or a loss of energy
  • Losing connection with friends and family due to lack of time to socialize
  • Overuse of tobacco, alcohol, or narcotics to deal with stress
  • Bottled up feelings of anger or frustration or being surprised by your own angry outbursts directed at your spouse, other family/friends, or even strangers
  • Feeling hopeless, sadness, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Being annoyed by family member comments about care for your spouse
  • Changes in your diet or exercise due to lack of time or interest

We know that caregivers with elevated levels of stress are at an increased risk for physical or emotional issues.  So what to do if you recognize yourself in even a couple of the statements above?

Take a break: Make arrangements for some fill-in help (family, friends, volunteers, or professional caregivers).  Take a day or even a few hours as a break.  And when you are away, stay away.  Talk about different things, see different things, do whatever relaxes you.  Even a few hours can make a huge difference in recharging your batteries. 

Indulge: Treat yourself to a movie, a nice dinner, a concert, or anything to splurge a little on you.  Reward yourself for all your hard work.

Take care of yourself first:  Realize that if you falter, then your spouse will suffer as well.  Eat well, take time to exercise (or begin to exercise if you haven’t in a while), and make sure you take care of your health by making and keeping your medical appointments.

Seek professional assistance: Consider talking with a healthcare professional that can help you to evaluate your circumstances and make recommendations.  If you are spiritual, seek guidance from a faith leader, they often have training in family issues and may have knowledge of services available to assist you.  Having a knowledgeable third party assessment may provide some good insights into your situation. 

Research:  There are numerous sources of information for family caregivers like www.caregiverstress.com that can be a resource of information for you.

As you work through the issues of caring for your spouse, remember that it is not selfish to focus on your own needs and desires when you are a family caregiver.  In fact, it is important that you take the initiative with your own physical and emotional care, or else it could make you less useful to the very person you are trying so hard to care for.

Tom Moorehead is President of Home Instead Senior Care-Lexington, a provider of home care services for the elderly. He can be reached at 781-402-0060 or tom.moorehead@homeinstead.com .