Advances in health care and wellness strategies have Americans living longer, and it is not uncommon for married couples to live well into their 70s, 80s and even their 90s. But what happens when the health of one spouse begins to fail, requiring a level of care that places the health of their partner at increased risk?

It is an all too common scenario playing out in homes all across America. One partner faces a major health set-back that requires the other to become a full-time caregiver. There is a dramatic shift in the dynamics of the relationship, and a lifelong partnership becomes an exercise in duty and responsibility. It is enough to test even the strongest commitment, but in many cases, it also can result in very real and lasting health risks for the caregiving partner.

Taking on the role of caregiver to a spouse or life-partner is a journey fraught with emotion. For some caregivers, the simple fact they remain well as their partner’s health fails is enough to create feelings of guilt. At the same time, increasing awareness that their own needs are not being met as they continue to accommodate those of their partner can cause even the most devoted caregiver to struggle with rising resentment. It is no surprise that this increase in negative emotion can significantly impact the physical, mental and emotional health of the caregiving partner. In fact, a recent report from the Journal of the American Medical Association has stated that spousal caregivers between the ages of 66 and 96 are 63% more likely to die than people of the same age who are not caregivers.

It is important that caregivers be aware of the signs that their health may be at risk as a result of their caregiving responsibilities. If caring for your loved one is causing you to experience any of the following, it may be time to reach out for help. Signs include decreased energy; sleep disturbances; missing or delaying your own doctor appointments; ignoring your own health problems/symptoms; overusing tobacco, alcohol or other substances; giving up exercise due to lack of time; not maintaining connection to family and friends; diminished interest in things you once enjoyed; and feelings of resentment toward your spouse.

Recognizing the signs that you may have taken on more than you can carry is the all-important first step toward regaining some control over your life and your health. While it is admirable to want to provide your loved one with the care they need in an environment where they feel safe and secure, it is crucial that caregivers recognize that there are limits to what one person can accomplish. Even the most devoted caregiver will collapse under the weight of night after sleepless night, or weeks on end of negotiating the frustration and paranoia of a loved one battling Alzheimer’s disease. It is impossible to overstate the importance of having supports in place to help with the logistics of caregiving and to simply provide a break from the routine.

On the other hand, finding the kind of relief that is available when and where it is needed can be a burden in and of itself. Even family and friends who are willing to help often don’t know to provide meaningful support and may be reluctant to volunteer for hands on caregiving duties. It can be difficult to reach out and ask for help when it has not been offered, so it is easy to get caught up in a cycle of “it’s easier just to do it myself.”

Sometimes a solution can be identified by stepping away from the people closest to you and looking for resources outside of your immediate social or family circle. Agencies exist in most communities that have services that can help, and professional staff people who are trained to help caregivers learn how to care for their loved one without sacrificing their own health and well-being. Your local Area Agency on Aging can provide you with valuable information, assistance in accessing services, caregiver training, counseling, and can connect you with a support group that meets your specific set of needs.

LTCA of Enid Area Agency on Aging serves Alfalfa, Blaine, Garfield, Grant, Kay, Kingfisher, Major and Noble Counties in northwest and northcentral Oklahoma. They have funds currently available for caregiver services, and would be happy to provide you with the support and encouragement you need. If you or anyone you know is in need of assistance, call caregiver coordinator Kathy Miller at (580) 234-7475.

Miller is caregiver coordinator for LTCA of Enid Area Agency on Aging.

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