The Caregiver Spouse


When we marry, we promise “in sickness and in health.” Becoming a caregiver is part of the package. Having a caregiver if we become temporarily or permanently incapacitated is also part of the package. It’s a great deal.
However, when it’s time to step up, nothing’s as easy as we hoped when we made this promise. In fact, it’s not even easy to be the recipient of caregiving. So, let me offer this tip: protect your marriage and not just your spouse. Don’t let burnout as a caregiver or frustration with your bad health destroy your relationship with each other.
Pay attention to your strengths and your love languages. Instead of trying to do everything for your mate, do the things you do well and the things that feel loving to you or to your spouse, and leave the rest to others.
Put your strengths to work. If you’re a great organizer, get the pills and the therapy dates and the volunteers and the insurance forms organized. If you’re strong, do the heavy lifting. If you’re great at research, find the best doctors, support groups, equipment, and helpers you can find. Whatever your skills, do the things you’re best at first. Look for others to help with the rest.
And choose what to help with based on your love language. If your love language is Physical Touch, you’ll feel most loving when you give massages or sponge baths, when you hold hands through a scary treatment, or when you tackle hair washing and helping with dressing and undressing. If it’s not your love language, but it’s the one your mate speaks, you’ll bring the most comfort and receive the most gratitude for adding these tasks to the ones you’re more motivated to tackle.
If your love language is Words of Affirmation, you’ll feel most loving as the person who’s close at hand during visits from the doctor or physical therapist and the one who offers encouragement during tough times. You might also take on the role of keeping the rest of your mate’s team motivated to help. And again, if this one is your spouse’s love language, you’ll want to offer more kind and reassuring and hopeful words during this difficult time.
If your love language is Quality Time, you’re likely to be a great hospital visitor and the person who can keep your mate involved in a pleasant activity despite any pain or malfunctioning parts. You’re also likely to stay present as your mate does those unpleasant breathing or exercise tasks, making them easier to tolerate. Don’t let anyone tell you to multi-task or do something else instead. This is how you show love, what you do when you feel loving, and it’s needed more than usual right now, even if it’s not your spouse’s love language.
If your love language is Gifts, preparing and delivering food to your ailing spouse is right up your alley. But so is finding little token gifts and treats for the rest of the team, things to keep their spirits up as they help. If this is your husband’s or wife’s love language, but not yours, remember that this is who that hospital gift shop and flower shop are there for. Remember, too, that you can present even that commode or walker you just got at the pharmacy with a bit of a ta-da to pick up the spirit of a loved one whose love language is gifts.
There’s one more love language: Acts of Service. If this is your love language, you’re incredibly lucky, because caregiving requires so many acts of service, and most of them feel like loving acts, not drudgery, to you. Anyone else trying to be a caregiver looks at you with awe, because it’s all drudgery to them, done out of duty. You feel the love, and that makes it so much easier. Just watch that you don’t overdo it. Ask for help from others before you neglect your own needs. And if you’re caring for someone who shows love through Acts of Service, instead of complaining about the huge number of acts required of you now, try offering compliments and gratitude for all the exhausting acts that your spouse has done for you over the years. Be understanding as he or she learns to receive help without being able to offer much in return during this challenging phase of life.
Start each day using your love language. Do the less rewarding tasks after that, then schedule more love language time before you get exhausted or angry. Invite others who care for your mate to help, preferably doing whatever makes them feel loving, and hire or barter for the rest of the help you need. Don’t be bullied by anyone, including yourself, into trying to do everything for your spouse yourself. It’s not good for you or your relationship.
Please remember than any illness or disability affects both of you. If your spouse cannot currently meet your need for your own love language, find alternatives, so that you stay on top of your game at this very important time in your marriage: a therapeutic massage or facial for some physical touch, a phone call to a friend or relative who’s great with affirming words, a weekly date with a friend or child who shares your need for quality time, a budget for buying yourself gifts or having flowers delivered, or, for Acts of Service, a supermarket or restaurant delivery service or a housekeeper.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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  • There is a particular issue for the caregivers of people who are descending slowly into Alzheimers, ALS, etc. A frank discussion of assisted living alternatives is good while people are healthy. One lovely woman in my community, who adores her husband, agreed with him that he would enter assisted living when his parkinsons/progressive dementia became too much for her (after a good six years of caregiving). It’s been four years since he entered assisted living. She is able to renew and refresh her spirit and be present for him, daily, in a loving way, including attending opera with him, which he still loves– but they go in a van provided by the assisted living center with young attendants to move him around and lift him.

By Patty Newbold

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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