Judson Haims: Why your dad can’t take care of mom alone
Special to The Aspen Times
“For better, for worse … in sickness and in health …”
About 12% of spouses are caring for a partner, according to 2020 statistics from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. Though it may seem like the ideal arrangement — mom and dad can stay home and care for each other — the reality is this: It’s incredibly difficult for many caregiving partners to recognize the need for help and accept it before it’s too late.
Your parents made a vow. They don’t want to admit help is needed, because, in their minds, that means they’ve failed. Ultimately, they put themselves last and experience high mortality rates. According to The Journals of Gerontology, “For spousal caregivers, high strain caregivers were 2.64 times more likely to die compared with caregivers reporting some strain.”
Other reports show that spousal caregivers (aged 66-96) who experience caregiving stress have a 63% higher mortality rate than their noncaregiving spouses, per a report from the Family Caregiver Alliance.
Caregiving spouses may also be compensating for the true daily needs of their partner. Because your father is caring for your mom 24/7, he sees everything — for better, for worse.
He may not tell you just how bad the “for worse” parts are, instead, focusing his updates on the better. Although positivity in caregiving is important, this kind of denial can lead to dangerous outcomes for both parents. It’s vital that adult children dig deeper when it comes to the status of caregiving life at home — and make recommendations for support sooner.
The dangers of isolation
It’s easy to think of your parents as keeping each other company at home, but their relationship is often changed by caregiving — and no spousal caregiver should ever be an island.
As caregiving intensifies, many friends fall away. Jolyon Hallows, who cared for his wife Sandra for 20 years, experienced this. After Sandra’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, several people she had considered friends said they’d call later but never did. They were too busy to visit. It was painful for Jolyon to watch.
Another heart-wrenching moment — and one of the few times Jolyon saw his wife cry following her diagnosis — was when Sandra lost her driver’s license. The loss of independence and mobility can be devastating for many older adults, and it can affect the family caregiver, too.
Over time, with these challenges in the foreground, spousal (and family) caregivers become more focused on the care receiver and cut off contact with friends and sometimes even family. They stop going to church, the library or out to their favorite restaurants. They cancel hair appointments and other social engagements.
The health hazards of loneliness and isolation are incredibly serious. In fact, research suggests loneliness is a higher risk factor for early death than smoking or obesity. If your father is feeling lonely or depressed while caring for your mother, but he has no support from friends or family to encourage him, what kind of care will he be providing? It’s a sure path to burnout.
The road to burnout
Family caregiving is lonely. It’s emotionally difficult. But it can also be quite taxing on the body. Fatigue, illness and falls may increase. If dad is unable to sleep at night because he’s afraid mom will wander, that loss of adequate rest will quickly catch up with him. If both mom and dad are unable to exercise as frequently, and the stress of lifting and transferring from bed to wheelchair to couch is taking its toll, both parents may be at risk for falls, injury or illness.
Unfortunately, I see this occur too often. This is why I often tell prospective clients, “While we are here to provide care for your spouse, should a caregiver notice that your well-being is compromised, the caregiver will say something and will also call our office.” It’s not tattle-telling. Rather, it’s comprehensive oversight and advocating.
Family caregiving is hard work, emotionally, physically and mentally. When one spouse takes on the hard work of managing a household along with their loved one’s daily care needs — all the while dealing with the rollercoaster of emotions this role brings — that spouse is at risk of burnout and even early death if self-care and support are not made a priority.
To provide the best care for others, you must care for yourself in the best possible way.
Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Aspen, Basalt and Carbondale. He is an advocate for our elderly and is available to answer questions. His contact information is VisitingAngels.com/comtns or 970-328-5526.