Why Is Caring for My Spouse So Hard Now That We’re Older?

In sickness and in health. Whether or not that phrase was part of your wedding vows, you likely feel a duty to look after your ailing spouse now that you’re both older. After all, no one knows your spouse better than you do. You’ve shared a life together. You know what makes each other tick.

Who better equipped to provide the care your spouse needs than you?

The trouble is you never realized it was going to be this hard. Maybe you’re feeling more tired than usual. Or you’re having trouble sleeping. Or you’ve had to neglect friends and set aside activities that meant a lot to you.

Still, you’re not complaining. That’s what you do for someone you love. You make sacrifices. You soldier on.

When someone suggests your spouse might do better living in a retirement home, you can’t help feeling shocked, perhaps even offended, as if the care you’re providing isn’t good enough. As if you’re not trying your hardest.

Besides, you’re not ready to move. Your home is filled with precious memories. And the idea of becoming separated or leaving your spouse’s care to strangers is horrifying. 

These are all perfectly legitimate feelings. 

But here’s something to think about: You can still be a loving spouse while admitting that, despite your best efforts, you need help.

Unravel the competing roles of spouse and caregiver

The first thing to realize is that being someone’s spouse and being someone’s caregiver are two different roles. And sometimes they conflict. 

Marriage is all about give and take. But when one partner is ailing, particularly if it’s for an extended period, that balance is thrown off. From the healthy partner’s perspective it becomes give and give. And no matter how hard they try to keep a positive attitude, it’s difficult to keep resentment from creeping in.

Often, spouses express relief after letting go of some of their caregiving responsibilities. They discover that they can go back to being a husband or wife rather than playing the competing role of live-in nurse or personal support worker. They still may hold on to some caregiving responsibilities, but they’re more manageable. They’re not all-consuming.

Overcome the feeling “I’m the only one who can do this”

To get to this point, you may need to let go of the belief that you’re the only person who can truly look after your spouse. 

This may be a difficult leap to make, particularly if you’ve had health care workers parachute into your life who don’t take time to get to know your spouse and end up being not much help at all. It’s only natural to not want to get burned the same way again.

The important thing to realize is that there are support services out there that do a much better job. It’s just a matter of finding ones you can trust. 

Let go of the notion that your own needs are secondary 

It’s easy to assume that looking after someone you love is all about sacrifice. The trouble is this perspective rarely serves you or your spouse in the long run.

If you ignore your own needs, sooner or later you’ll have nothing left in your tank. Some family caregivers may soldier on for years, thinking they’re coping fine. Then something suddenly and unexpectedly triggers a health crisis of their own. 

To get a fresh perspective on this, check out the Caregiver Bill of Rights.

Stop pretending that things are fine

If you have adult children, they may be pushing you to get help. But if you’ve done a particularly good job of insisting that you and your spouse are coping fine, don’t be surprised if they’re confused are perhaps even a little resistant when you finally seek help.

Why might your kids be resistant? Well, perhaps they don’t want to believe that one of their parents is getting old and frail. Perhaps they don’t understand everything you have to do to support your spouse on a day-to-day basis and the toll it’s taking on you. Perhaps they’re feeling guilty they haven’t done more to support both of you. Or perhaps they’re worried that you’re expecting them to take over from you.

Whatever the reason for their confusion or resistance, don’t let them dissuade you from getting the support you both need. Given time, they may come around. Share this article with them, if you think it will help.

Consider options that meet both your needs

When you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to accept help, look for options that meet the needs of both you and your spouse. 

For instance, something like an adult day program might offer your spouse a chance to get out of the house, meet some new people, have a meal, and have some care needs looked after by qualified staff while you take a break. 

Or you might want to explore retirement homes that cater to couples. Their staff could take over some care tasks from you on a day-to-day basis while you regain your social life by taking advantage of their activity programs and meeting new neighbours. 

If you get to this step, congratulations. You’ve likely done a lot of soul-searching to get here. 

If you don’t know where to start your search and you live in Ontario, check out thehealthline.ca.

If you live in Ottawa, and you’d like to know about retirement home options, we’d be happy to help you at Tea and Toast