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Posted: March 17, 2006

Spousal Caregiving

Meeting the Caregiving Challenge

Bill AndrewWe are all faced with many challenges during our lives -- some more difficult than others. Usually, we are able to rise up and meet those challenges according to our respective abilities. However, occasionally life hands us a challenge that is indeed "challenging" -- one that may "throw us for a loop." 

One approach is to use humor, as we discussed in Don't Let Getting Older "Throw You for Loop." In this column, we will discuss a more serious approach to meeting the caregiving challenge -- finding the strength to care for a loved one afflicted with a serious or terminal illness. 

As spousal caregivers, we face many complex issues in which our respective family heritage, cultural values and morals, and faith and spirituality all contribute to the potential manner in which we provide care for our loved ones. Examples of these issues include:

 
  • Who becomes the designated caregiver when a parent or spouse is afflicted with a serious or terminal illness?
  • Will this responsibility be shared with others?
  • What do you do if other family members are affected by the illness?
  • How long should you, or can you, care for your loved one at home?
  • At what point do you consider institutional or hospice care?
  • Is death considered a spiritual release or is the subject not discussed in your family?
Since there are no easy answers to these issues, each family typically finds its own way of providing care and coping with the stress involved. 
 
Regardless of the way chosen, the caregiver of a seriously ill spouse or other family member will be riding an emotional "roller coaster" -- with sensations ranging from anger to denial to fear to guilt to hopelessness and grief. According to a recent study, one in three caregivers under all this stress will typically develop symptoms of depression. The question that needs to be answered is, "How can I, as a spousal caregiver, summon the strength to provide care for my loved one without incurring significant depression?"
 
To answer that question, I referred to a number of personal resources and came up with the following suggestions for spousal caregivers:
  • Develop a personal support family. It is important to understand that you can not be a good spousal caregiver without developing a personal support family. You must involve other family members and friends in caring for your loved one. Unless you ask, they may not volunteer because they don't know what to do -- your best bet is to assign specific tasks. Do not be too proud to accept help from any and all who offer. They may really want to help but you must ask them in order to have some time for yourself.
  • Join a caregiver support group. My personal experience with support groups is that they are really and truly "lifesavers!" Here you can freely share your problems and solutions with peers who are often experiencing the same problems and solutions -- I call this my "share and care" time. You can often pick up practical tips that will save you time and energy by learning from other spousal caregivers who have "been there/done that." It is important that the support group be dedicated to your spouse's illness.
  • Solicit and use respite care. There are many sources of respite care -- depending upon your spouse's illness and your financial condition. Trained individuals take care of your spouse while you take a breather and some time for yourself to get your "batteries recharged." I use respite time to run errands, do shopping, and take some personal time for myself.
  • Make sure you take care of your personal health. If you are not there for your spouse, who will be? It is critical that you do not neglect your personal health which could compromise your ability to provide care for your spouse. While concentrating on the needs of your spouse is important, it is easy to neglect to take care of yourself. Get exercise, eat nutritious meals, get a good night's sleep, make sure that you get regular health checkups, remember that your health is important to the health of your spouse.
  • Prioritize your daily activities. Often, spousal caregivers try to continue to do everything that they did before -- in addition to their new responsibilities as caregivers for their spouses. This is a major mistake that could be detrimental to both the spouse and the caregiver. Make a list of what is important -- and what is not. Do the really important things and let the others slide by -- or assign them to one of your personal support family. You would be surprised at how unimportant some things become.
  • Think outside the box. While some things "should" be done in a certain way, perhaps they "could" be done in a different way. For example, you may have always done your yard yourself and now you "should" want it done the same way. Perhaps it "could" be done by someone else -- or perhaps it "could" remain less than perfectly groomed and that is okay as well. You need to compromise and think "outside the box" because of your current situation. While I try to use yard work to relieve my stress, my yard is less than perfect.
  • Make some time for yourself. You really do need to get away from your spousal caregiving responsibilities occasionally in order to maintain your personal sanity. Use the respite care discussed above or have friends sit with your spouse for an hour or two once or twice a week. Take the time to take a walk, go to a movie, eat a banana split -- anything to "recharge your batteries." Don't feel that you are deserting your spouse by taking time for yourself -- and do not feel guilty. You really do need to take some time for yourself.
  • Do not use alcohol or tobacco as crutches. Both drinking and smoking are typical responses to caregiver stress -- especially when used to excess. Knowing this, choose instead various coping mechanisms such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, deep breathing, exercise, walking, etc. Personally, I walk outside in the yard for 5 or 10 minutes and take deep breaths when I feel stress coming on.
  • Check out your personal spirituality. If your religion has played a major role in your lives as husband and wife, now is the perfect time to embrace it even more than before. I know that it has in our lives -- and I pray now more than ever seeking Divine guidance and assistance as I provide care for my spouse, Carol, who has late-stage Alzheimer's disease. Try to attend church together if you can. Pray together at home -- sing familiar hymns. Arrange for clergy to visit you and your spouse. Perhaps members of your church can become part of your personal support family. From a personal perspective, I consider each day as a "prayer" as I provide care for Carol. 
Medical professionals tell us that while you can take many positive steps, as described above, to stay strong during this challenging period of being a spousal caregiver, there will undoubtedly be moments when you feel angry, upset, frustrated, impatient, and depressed. You may even express these emotions toward your loved one and then feel guilty about that. These medical professionals suggest that you allow yourself to freely express these feelings -- of course, without taking it out on your loved one.  
 
They also suggest that you do not try to suppress what are completely normal reactions and emotions. Let the tears flow. Pour out your feelings in a personal journal. Then move on -- gathering comfort and strength from the fact that you are not alone in this struggle. There are positive steps that you can take to meet the caregiving challenge, if you take them.
 
I know -- I have personally taken each of the above steps during my almost 12 years of spousal caregiving. I have met the challenge -- have you?
 
If you would like to share how you have met your personal spousal caregiving challenges, write to me at ASKBill@caregivershome.com
 
WORDS TO CARE BY . . .
 
"The ultimate measure of a man (or woman) is not where he (she) stands in moments of comfort, but where he (she) stands at times of challenge and controversy."
 
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68)


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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© 2006 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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