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Posted: February 15, 2007

Spousal Caregiving

Make it 'Happy Valentine's Day' Year-Round

Bill Andrew

Happy Valentine's Day! We heard it many times this week. On the occasion of this traditional day of expressing your love for your loved one, I would like to suggest several ways to make your marriage much happier -- despite the trials and tribulations you encounter on a daily basis as the caregiver for your spouse. As a spousal caregiver, it is important to express your love in ways that may not reflect the traditional romantic notions of love and to do so all year long.

Before we address these suggestions, perhaps we should review what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 about love:

"Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

This is the great "hymn" to the virtue of love. It is a beautiful passage about authentic love-challenging and life-giving love. What St. Paul is talking about is something much more powerful and beautiful that cupid and candy hearts. He really wants to make sure that we understand what love truly is -- this is crucial for spousal caregivers! Because if we misunderstand love in one realm of our lives -- if we have the shallow notion of it in certain relationships -- we are going to apply the same mistaken notions in other realms and relationships. Love is the glue that holds life together -- and if the glue is faulty, then life crumbles.

As a 13-year, 24/7 spousal caregiver for my wife, Carol, who is afflicted with late-stage Alzheimer's disease, I especially like to reflect on the last line of the above Biblical quotation -- "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." In my opinion, these words should be the mantra of every spousal caregiver. Most people have a distorted notion of love -- just look at the divorce statistics and broken marriages. In modern America, our idea of love and marriage has become really twisted. As spousal caregivers, you and I have made the commitment to our loved ones "for better or for worse; in sickness and in health."

Real love can be defined as making sacrifices for someone -- your spouse -- without getting anything in return. St. Peter in 1 Peter 1:22 says, "Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another from a pure heart." What is being said here is that you are true to your commitment to your spouse. You honor your marriage vows as an act of "sincere mutual love" and from a "pure heart." No one said that being a spousal caregiver was going to be easy; the sacrifices you and I are making for our spouses are a reflection of "real love."

However, the trials and tribulations of being a caregiver can often be very frustrating and difficult. It doesn't take a major change to improve your life as a spousal caregiver -- and to improve your marital relationship. The path to a more loving relationship is often paved with many small steps, such as an unexpected compliment, the touch of a hand, or praise for some small accomplishment. What good is it to say "I love you" on Valentine's Day if you haven't said "I love you" to your spouse on the other 364 days of the year. Let's explore several small steps we can take to make our marriages much happier -- despite the trials and tribulations that we encounter on a daily basis as caregivers for our spouses.

Honor "otherness." No two people are completely compatible -- perhaps that has become more obvious to you during your spousal caregiving journey. The longer we are married, the more we tend to forget we are married to another person; we tend to think of our spouses as extensions of ourselves. Perhaps we get frustrated when they act in ways we wouldn't. We tend to overlook the fact that we are different people and each have our own reality. This becomes very obvious when your spouse has Alzheimer's disease -- Carol's reality is not my reality. I am in the real world and she is in her own little world.

Eliminate negativity. As I said in a prior column, we spousal caregivers need to "accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." Negativity breeds contempt, and that is the last thing a spousal caregiver needs. If you are negative with your spouse, you will make the caregiving journey much more difficult. It injures your loved one and ruptures your love connection with them. As the old song goes, "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don't mess with mister in-between."

Make the bedroom a problem-free zone. We all need a place where we can feel safe and happy, and that place should be your bedroom. Try to ban arguments and serious discussion from the bedroom, if you can. If you do this, you may find that both of you will sleep much better. Select another place in your home for any serious discussions, such as the living room or family room. Make the "getting ready for bed" time one of true love by expressing support for your spouse in a non-sexual way if necessary. This will help you both to sleep better and will also combat the daily stress and strain of being a caregiver.

Acknowledge the little things your spouse may do for you. While this will depend upon your spouse's condition, it does not free you, as the spousal caregiver, from your responsibility to say "thank you" when the occasion dictates. When you express gratitude for your spouse's contributions, say it like you mean it and be specific about what you appreciate. For example, if Carol eats or drinks what I give her without a problem, I will typically say something like "thank you for doing such a good job." This acknowledges her accomplishment and gives her the satisfaction of knowing that she has done something good to help me.

Take the initiative. We often forget that mutual feelings of tenderness don't just happen; we must take the initiative to remind our spouses that we still love them. What you do to accomplish this isn't as important as actually doing something that shows your spouse that you are thinking of them. For example, I frequently tell Carol that I love her throughout the day. While she may or may not acknowledge what I say, I know that by doing so she knows that I am there for her.

Touch your spouse. Sharing a touch makes us feel closer to each other. This need not be sexual but should be spontaneous. For example, Carol and I have held hands in public for our entire married life -- almost 56 years. Make touch an everyday routine until it becomes second nature. This is especially important when the diagnosis is Alzheimer's disease or some other dementia -- touch becomes a "security blanket" for your loved one.

Laugh together. In a previous column, I discussed the role that humor and laughter can play in offsetting stress and perhaps even boosting your immune system. Both therapeutic medical and emotional benefits can be derived from humor and laughter -- building rapport, decreasing tension, and gaining a broader perspective for caregiver problem solving. Indeed, "laughter is the best medicine" for both care-recipient and caregiver. Emotional memories stay with us on a much deeper level than other memories. If you laugh often with your spouse, the whole emotional center of your lives will improve. A case in point: despite the ravages of Alzheimer's, Carol will still laugh at something she remembers from her past and even laughs at something I or someone else has said in her presence.

Receive compliments well. Many caregivers don't know how to handle compliments well, especially from their spouse. Perhaps they are trying to be modest or perhaps they have inner doubts about their abilities. Whatever the reason, if you dismiss compliments from your spouse -- or from anyone else -- about your caregiving activities, you may hurt their feelings or strain the relationship, and they may not give you compliments in the future. Instead, just say "thank you." Accept the compliment and the warmth being sent your way. It will increase your confidence in your ability to continue to provide the care for your spouse -- and isn't that what spousal caregiving is all about?

If you have any comments or thoughts about the above, drop me a line at ASKBill@caregivershome.com and I will share them with other readers in a future column.

WORDS TO CARE BY . . .

"Love bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things."

(1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

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© 2007 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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