When your spouse incurs a severe injury or debilitating illness, you face the prospect of starting a whole new chapter of your life — one that you hadn’t expected. Becoming your spouse’s caregiver presents a unique set of challenges that can affect you emotionally and physically, and can often seem overwhelming. This article contains information about common reactions to becoming a caregiver, resources for support and help, and tips on taking care of yourself throughout the caregiving process.
Common emotional responses
It's common to experience many different emotions when a loved one requires long-term care:
- Grief — It's natural to mourn the loss of your spouse's good health, as well as your expectations of what the future might have been like.
- Anxiety — You might feel anxious that you won't be up to the task of caring for your spouse or that you and your spouse will lose your close emotional bond.
- Fear — You may be afraid this will not be a temporary situation and that you won't be able to cope or manage if this becomes more permanent.
- Anger — You didn't choose to be your spouse's caregiver. It's not a position you asked for. It's normal to feel bitter about being handed a role you didn't expect or prepare for.
- Isolation — There will likely be times when you feel very much alone or as if no one else could possibly understand what you're going through.
- Guilt — It's common to feel glad that you're OK, but upset that your spouse isn't. It's also common to feel burdened by the role of caregiver even though you love your spouse.
With all these emotions in play, it's important to care for your own health and wellness. Warning signs that you may be under too much stress include insomnia, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and physical symptoms, such as chronic headaches.
Learn about your spouse's condition and available resources
Being a caregiver is demanding and can sometimes be frustrating. But, caregivers who learn what help is available and how to access it tend to feel more in control of a difficult situation:
- Educate yourself about your spouse's condition. This will enable you to ask health care providers the right questions, allow you to anticipate your spouse's needs and help you react appropriately when issues arise.
- Take advantage of Department of Defense resources for caregivers. Check out the Military Caregiver Peer Forums, Military Caregiver Virtual Forums and Military Families Learning Network blogs. Find links to more caregiver information and resources on the Military OneSource Wounded Warrior page.
- Learn to communicate with members of the health care profession. Be sure to write a running list of questions that you refer to when you speak with health care providers. Think about having someone else — a friend or family member — go with you to meetings with health care providers. It can be difficult to understand and absorb everything you're being told.
- Learn the routines of your spouse's medical facilities. Ask about office hours, the best time to reach your spouse's health care provider and what to do in the event of a medical emergency.
- Keep good records. Have a central place, such as a notebook, where you keep telephone numbers and emails of health care providers, as well as other pertinent information. Bring copies of your spouse's health insurance card and the names and doses of your spouse's medications to health care appointments.
- Learn about assistive devices. These can help make life easier for you and your spouse. There are many illness-specific resources available, such as Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Amputee Coalition of America. For computer-assistive technology, consult the TRICARE Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program.
Take care of yourself
As you care for your spouse, it is especially important to remember to take of yourself. If you feel yourself emotionally and physically exhausted, know that there are steps you can take to find relief:
- Take breaks. Caregiving is consuming and demanding work. Give yourself down time to restore your energy. A long walk or a night out at the movies can take the edge off. But also look for longer getaways, such as a day or weekend away if possible. Ask a trusted friend for help or look into respite care.
- Take advantage of supportive and skilled care. Different levels of assistance may be available to you and your spouse. For example, home health aides, home care aides and nursing assistants can assist with the activities of daily living. Occupational therapists and registered nurses have a higher skill level and can often assist with ongoing medical necessities.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. You may enjoy preparing your loved one's meals, but dread helping with a bath. Take the stress off yourself by asking someone more skilled to take over that chore for you.
- Take care of your own health needs. Make appointments (and keep them) for check-ups or when you're feeling sick.
- Create a team of professionals to help you. To the extent that you can, assemble a team of professionals (health care professionals, financial and legal planners, clergy, family and friends) to rely on.
- Accept help. Neighbors, friends or co-workers may have asked how they can help you with your spouse's care. Accept their offers and give them specific tasks, such as cooking meals or even spending an afternoon with your spouse while you take a break.
- Hold a family meeting. Call together family members, even if they live far away, to discuss your spouse's needs. Determine how each family member can contribute, either through direct care or by taking on specific household responsibilities.
- Connect with other caregivers. Having people to turn to will ease feelings of isolation and help you get through this challenging time. Talk with your health care provider or visit online resources like the Caregiver Action Network.
If you feel overwhelmed, it's important seek help. Contact a confidential, non-medical counselor through Military OneSource at 800-342-9647 or through your installation's Military and Family Support Center. These resources are free to service members and their family members.