Ask Our Experts: Caring for a spouse during your retirement years

Kim RoutledgeKim Routledge
Sales Consultant, Chartwell Martha’s Landing
At Chartwell since 2000

In my role as a Sales Consultant, I’ve met many different people in unique situations trying to determine what support solution will improve their or a loved one’s quality of life. Though I am often approached by adult children who are seeking help or advice on behalf of an aging parent, I’ve also been introduced to a number of older adults trying to understand their options so they can ensure the right environment, including the availability of support, for their spouse.

Back in 2012, I began meeting with church groups comprised of senior men who are the primary caregivers for their wives. Their church wisely formed the support group to create a safe place where these men could share their personal experiences. Through meeting these brave and caring individuals, all of whom are trying to do right by their loved one, I’ve learned a lot about the unique challenges that can arise as a senior caregiver. For instance, their experiences can differ greatly from that of middle-aged caregivers, especially as living options like a move to a retirement residence will affect their lives, too. It isn’t just about finding a home that an adult child feels can provide for their parent’s needs, and a place that he or she likes—it’s about finding a home that is comfortable for both spouses, and also caters to an independent lifestyle for the caregiver.

As a result of my interaction with the men’s group, I’ve found that there are a lot of mixed feelings that a senior caregiver may experience. There can be a sense of accountability, where caregivers may feel pressure or responsibility to care for a spouse, which can also mingle with a sense of guilt, perhaps because they wish to have a life outside of caregiving, but feel they will have to give that up. Fear is a common feeling as well—fear that they are not adequately caring for a spouse on their own, fear of the quality of care that a stranger may have to provide, and even fear of their spouse passing away and not knowing how to go on without them. Experiencing so many conflicting emotions isn’t easy, but it is easy to see how some older adults might feel alone, especially if they don’t have a network of friends and family to rely on.

I can tell you with confidence that all of these feelings are completely natural, as is the instinct to reach out for more support. It’s important to note that caregiving for a spouse during one’s later years can have a negative impact on the overall health of the “well” spouse over time. Caregiving can be a physical job on its own, but feelings of stress or worry can also manifest in a physical way. And if a senior caregiver is so busy that they’re being held back from the things that make them feel happy and healthy—exercising, going out to socialize with friends, volunteering in the community—their mental and emotional health can decline, affecting both them and their spouse in an adverse way. What I recommend to the men I meet with monthly is to strike a balance: it’s important for a caregiver to maintain their own quality of life when caring for a spouse, but also important to recognize when they can’t achieve that on their own.

There are many different options available to older men and women caring for a spouse, including community programs and support groups, but I want to explain why I think a retirement residence is a good option for couples with differing support needs. A retirement community allows couples to live together and enjoy the lifestyle they want. While a spouse’s support needs may have been what prompted the exploration of the living option, a retirement community can make life better for a caregiver, too. In addition to trained and dedicated staff taking care of the spouse in need, the caregiver can take advantage of services like prepared meals, lifestyle programs or outings that provide an opportunity for socialization, exercise and entertainment, and even household services like housekeeping and laundry. No longer is a senior caregiver taking care of their spouse on their own; rather, with convenient and supportive services available, they can live life how they want to. If they want to meet up with that friend they always used to grab a coffee with at the mall, go back to singing in the church choir, or do laps at the nearby fitness complex, they can do so without feeling guilty that their spouse isn’t being properly looked after in their absence. Let’s also not forget that it’s an opportunity for the spouse who requires support to participate in more age and ability friendly activities available in their new residence.

The real beauty of retirement living is that caregivers and their spouses have the freedom to focus on one another and what they enjoy doing in life, with personal support services in place to ensure freedom and peace of mind.

If you are caregiving for a spouse, remember you are not alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out to representatives of your local retirement homes if you are interested in learning more, or simply need help connecting with community resources and support groups in your area that can help make your life as a couple better.

For more information about the support and living options offered by Chartwell Retirement Residences, click here.

About Kim Routledge

Kim has been in the senior living industry for 17 years. She is an active member of the Burlington community and volunteers on the Burlington Senior’s Advisory Committee as Chair of Communications. With the committee, Kim gives presentations 2-3 times a month and helps seniors and their families connect with resources that will help improve their quality of life.