When Marriage and Caregiving Collide: Overcoming Loneliness in Crowded Spaces

You’ve been successful managing most aspects of your complicated life and are proud of the relationships you’ve nurtured and maintained through it all. Whether you’re a baby boomer, a millennial or somewhere in between, research tells us that your odds of becoming a caregiver to a loved one through illness or age are quite high.

Much has been written about whether taking on a caregiving role strengthens or shatters the relationship you share with your significant other. I think the unfulfilling answer is, it depends.

My mother came to live with my husband and me after my father passed away. She had a few solid years of independence but the majority of her time with us represented a slow and deep decline into dementia.

Initially she told us about the giraffes and elephants she saw hanging in the trees outside her bedroom window. Those animals represented a naïve and whimsical period we all passed off as simply her creative imagination.

Late one night, true fear manifest when we landed in the emergency room with my hysterical mother. She’d been fighting off winged monkeys clawing at her windows to take her away.

In the wee hours of that morning I sat in the ER with my mother and my husband. We were engulfed by the antiseptic aroma only hospitals possess and marked time through the resonance of scurried footsteps down long tiled corridors.

There were the in’s and out’s of doctors and nurses, the hushed conversation of other patients with their extended families and the hum of high tech medical equipment.

Although surrounded by so much activity, I felt utterly alone.

Through my mother’s decline my husband remained convinced in a rational-male-engineering way that we could fix things. I knew we were powerless over my mother’s illness, but not over our personal reaction to the crisis our family faced.

Through an 18-year dementia journey with my mother, I came to appreciate certain truths about caring for a loved one. The importance of partnership in caregiving was the most profound lesson. Together my husband and I focused on strategies to reduce the impact of caregiving on our marriage.

Recognize the significance of this life change

Caregiving is never an easy job especially for someone you know and love as they decline through illness or age. Acknowledge how your lives are changing, each in their own way. Don’t judge the emotions and fears each of you have about your caregiving responsibility. Instead work together to find common ground solutions even if they perpetually evolve.

Grieve the loss of your spontaneity

There’s no denying your life together has changed. Your ability to meet for dinner, catch a movie without planning or just run out for something will now require more intention. Remember: wrapping yourself fully in the caregiving role and isolating from everything else is never the answer. Find resources and support to give you time away from caregiving. Make time for both of you: separately and together.

Talk about everything but ensure the conversation is two-way

Reluctance to talk about difficult, high stress situations can apply to anyone but may be more prevalent among some men. Encourage dialogue by jotting down the raw emotions each of you feel throughout the week, then take turns sharing those feelings in the context of the situation you faced. Understanding each other’s trigger points can allow you to plan caregiving escape routes.

Draw closer by acknowledging the role your significant other plays in caregiving

Ask yourself: could I do what my partner is doing if our roles were reversed? Then force yourself to answer the question truthfully.

Caregiving pairs come in so many different varieties: you could find yourself caring for grandparents, parents, a spouse or partner, siblings, extended relatives or friends.

Devising strategies for yourself and your significant relationships can help all involved to better cope with difficult caregiving responsibilities.

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