Protecting Your Mental Health When Caring for a Spouse or Partner

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Protecting Your Mental Health When Caring for a Spouse or Partner

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By Emma Smith, INCITE Consulting Solutions

Years ago, my father fell ill and eventually lost the ability to walk. My mother suddenly found herself in the role of spousal caregiver for which she was unprepared. I wouldn’t learn of the toll caregiving had on her mental health until much later (admittedly, mental wellbeing was not on my radar at the time as it was not discussed in my family or social circle).

A 2020 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP documented that 12 percent of caregivers of adults are a spouse or partner. The report also found that, compared to 2015, more adults are not only assuming the role of caregiving but they are also doing so for individuals with more complex medical and/or support needs. One survey found that almost all spousal caregivers live with the care recipient, taking on a 24/7 responsibility. Compared to other types of family caregivers, spousal caregivers receive less professional and/or familial help. Spousal caregivers are also at risk for higher rates of depression - sometimes even more so than the person they care for. 

Mental Health Tips for Spousal Caregivers

Being a caregiver for a spouse or partner comes with a unique set of challenges. With the new and often complicated role of caregiver, the marital relationship dynamic changes. You may no longer be able to engage in your favorite social activities together. Your significant other may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or angry at suddenly being dependent on you and others. You may feel resentment about taking on new responsibilities or guilt for taking personal time. These feelings may lead to frustration with one another and add to the stress you both experience.

Here are some strategies that can help you process and accept this shift in your relationship.

1. Embrace the change. It’s OK to grieve the loss of the way things were. Consider opportunities for strengthening your relationship including trying new hobbies and interests together. 

2. Talk it out. Feelings of anger, frustration, and overwhelm are entirely normal. Rather than bottling up these feelings and letting them manifest until they explode, consider friends and/or family members who may be amenable outlets for venting. Virtual and in person support groups and online forums, such as the Caregiving.com chat rooms, offer space for honest conversations.

3. Find your caregiver community. There are resources to help you. For example, the Well Spouse Association offers peer mentors and support groups. Sites and apps like CaringBridge allow you to develop an online space to connect with friends and family and to coordinate help when needed.

4. Explore options with employers. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has provisions for both an employee and a spouse experiencing a serious health condition. Many employers have programs in place where donated leave can be extended to an employee. Using these programs may provide you with some breathing room to take care of caregiving duties or find the support you need. 

5. Be aware of tendencies to downplay or compare your experience. Caregiver burden refers to the strain and difficulties experienced by the caregiver or family members of those living with mental or physical illnesses, including a range of psychological, emotional, social, physical, and financial problems. As the difficulty of an individual’s condition or comorbidities increases, so too does the caregiver’s burden; this burden can be complex and further complicated by multiple, competing priorities.

If you’re reading this, you no doubt already understand that unrelenting stress is no good for anyone’s overall health. The realities of full-time caregiving, however, mean that sometimes spousal caregiver burnout is unavoidable. When you can, do a quick mental check-in to assess how you may be contributing to some of the stress you’re experiencing. Ask yourself: Am I comparing my caregiving to the experiences of others? Am I downplaying the negative impacts of my caregiving - in my head and when I speak to others? Bringing awareness to these tendencies is the first step to addressing them and speaking more kindly to and about yourself.

Caring for the Spousal Caregiver

If you have a parent who is caring for a spouse or partner, check in regularly. My parents did an excellent job at concealing the extent of their struggles from me and my siblings, all for the sake of “protecting us.” Do not assume everything is fine. Offer ways to pitch in to reduce the burden. Or just do something, unprompted. Sometimes people are too entrenched in their caregiving to reach out.

Further Reading

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