Health
A senior couple walking in the park
A senior couple walking in the park
A senior couple walking in the park

Supporting a Spouse Through a Health Challenge

Every year, millions of couples come face to face with a serious illness. A new diagnosis — whether it’s Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart failure, kidney dysfunction or another major medical condition — is life-changing for both of you. Yet research reveals that the needs of the well spouse are often overlooked, just when he or she needs the strength to support a partner in new ways.

If you have suddenly been put into the role of caregiver, what should you do — and how can you stay strong while you do it? Psychiatrist Susan Lehmann, director of the geriatric psychiatry clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, recommends these strategies.

older african-american couple arms around each other

Listen and share time.

Not sure what to say? That’s OK. Assure your spouse that you love and support him or her. Listen if your spouse wants to talk, or just spend quiet time together. If possible, keep sharing routines that have been part of your life together — a TV movie and popcorn on Friday night, morning coffee and the daily newspaper, walking the dog. After a serious diagnosis, you both may cherish these everyday traditions more than ever.

Get informed.

Well spouses cope better when they, like their partners, have accurate, firsthand information about their mate’s condition, treatment and needs. “While the internet may provide both general and specific information about the condition and treatment, it’s important to remember that reliability of medical information varies widely across internet sites,” Lehmann says. “Some websites may provide inaccurate or misleading information, so it is important to discuss your concerns, including information you have read from other sources, with your health care providers.”

Talk to practitioners together.

Don’t sit in the waiting room or stay silent during medical appointments. “It is always helpful to have another set of ears listening to the clinician explain the treatment plan,” Lehmann says. “Knowing that time with the physician or nurse is limited, it is especially helpful to generate a list of questions and concerns together with your partner before medical appointments.”

Prioritize your questions — putting the most important ones first — to be sure you receive the information you need most at your spouse’s next appointment. “If you are unable to ask all the questions on your mind during an appointment, ask if you can schedule a follow-up phone time or send your additional questions to the clinician or his/her assistant by email,” Lehmann adds.

Sidestep nagging.

A major medical diagnosis can lead to doctor-recommended changes in your spouse’s diet, physical activity level, medication routine and need for rest. A well spouse’s support and encouragement can help a partner stay on track, but this new role can also trigger frustration on both sides. The well spouse may feel stressed; the ill spouse might not appreciate nagging.

“Sometimes it is helpful to enlist the support of the health care practitioner in prioritizing which changes are most important to implement and to remind your partner that these changes are ones that the clinician is recommending,” Lehmann says. “This can often diminish the sense that the well spouse is trying to exert undue control, but rather is a partner with his/her mate and the health care practitioner.”

Accept help.

Are offers of casseroles and housecleaning pouring in? Let well-wishers lighten your load so you can focus on your ill spouse and get needed rest and support for yourself.

“Being a care partner can leave a person feeling overwhelmed and exhausted,” Lehmann says. “Ask to speak with the doctor, nurse or social worker about home services for which you may be eligible. Many insurance plans provide coverage for home nursing services and for occupational therapy and physical therapy, which can be very helpful in improving your partner’s safety and function in the home.”

Definitions

Caregiving: The assistance family, friends and professionals provide to those who are elderly, sick or otherwise unable to care for themselves. Caregiving can include buying groceries, cooking meals, cleaning, assistance with bathing or personal care, making and driving someone to medical appointments, dispensing medicine, helping someone get in or out of bed, and more.

Heart failure: When the heart cannot supply as much blood as the body needs, because it cannot fill completely or cannot pump with enough force. Diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and heart valve problems can cause heart failure. Heart failure does not mean the heart is about to stop. Medications and lifestyle changes can reduce symptoms.

Research Shows

Know What You Need Now

Don’t underestimate your needs when your partner faces a serious illness. Recent research involving heart attack survivors and their partners has revealed that a well spouse’s risk of depression and anxiety increases when their partner experiences a major health crisis. And in a study of men with advanced prostate cancer, researchers have found that emotional distress increases equally in both partners, yet the well spouses are less likely to receive emotional support.

“Often, the well spouse puts his/her own needs on the back burner, so to speak, when a partner has a serious health concern,” Lehmann says. “Being able to talk about your fears, frustrations and worries with someone you trust will not only help you feel better, but you will be more able to help and support your partner."

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