Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Caring for the caregiving spouse

When we think of someone caring for an older adult, we may assume it is an adult child supporting an aging parent. However, a quarter of Canadians over the age of 65 are also caregivers themselves. And perhaps not surprisingly, a third of those are caregiving for a spouse or partner.

If you are an older adult caring for your spouse, you are likely all too familiar with some of the unique challenges that caregiving during your later years can bring. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated many of these challenges. As a recent CTV news article brought to light, we have focused on the needs of older adults as receivers of care during the pandemic, but have not talked much about the needs of older adults who are caregivers themselves.

Taking on all the care yourself

I have often noted that spouses, more than adult children, may be more reluctant to seek help with caregiving tasks. I have heard both husbands and wives express the sentiment that they should be able to provide all the care their spouse needs without assistance. They believe it is their duty as a "good" spouse. This is quite a big expectation and may not be realistic!

Instead, I suggest that if you are caregiving for a spouse—or any loved one—a more appropriate role may be to ensure your loved one gets the best care possible; that they are safe, feel secure, and have opportunities to enjoy life. The goal is excellent care and excellent quality of life, not that you as the spouse is the only provider of all of that. And in actuality, despite the desire to be the sole caregiver for a spouse, many people rely heavily on other family members and professional caregivers to assist with caregiving tasks.

Challenges during COVID-19

During COVID, getting help from other family members and professional caregivers has gotten more complicated for many people. With stay-at-home and lockdown orders in place in some parts of Canada, many older couples have been quite isolated and without family or professional support readily available. Notably, a recent StatCan report stated, "Not only are seniors more at risk of severe illness, they are also more affected by isolation measures."

The challenges that have arisen in the last year, and the "pause" on our typical way of living, have afforded us an opportunity to reconsider our lifestyles and whether there are changes we need to make to improve our quality of life. The pandemic has highlighted areas of vulnerability for many of us. As difficult as this is, it is also a wake-up call to explore options to remedy those vulnerabilities.

Re-thinking your support options

For older couples and their family members, this may mean re-thinking how to ensure consistent care and socialization in the future, considering the needs of both people in the couple; the one needing care and the one providing the care. Both deserve to have the best quality of life possible in their later years.

Perhaps this is the time to explore options, such as retirement living. For many older adults, this is the option that provides a sense of safety, support, and opportunities for easy socialization. No matter where one lived during the pandemic, it was challenging; however, in retirement homes, residents knew there was always someone near by if they needed assistance, and safe touchpoints for socialization and engagement were still available. Imagine the peace of mind for a caregiving spouse, and their entire family, to know that help is readily available if there ever were a problem.

Social stumbling blocks for caregiving spouses

Spousal caregivers often find socialization challenging. If your loved one isn’t very mobile or has care needs that require regular help and monitoring, you may find it’s not easy to go out or host/spend time with friends. Retirement living can be a welcome solution to the isolation that may accompany providing support to a spouse, as there are safe opportunities to socialize right at the residence, as well as staff who can take care of your spouse’s needs so you can take a break when you need one.

In addition to the many heartaches, there are many gifts to this difficult year that we’ve all experienced. One of them may be finding the right living situation for you and your spouse so that you both get to have the best quality of life possible at this stage of your life together.