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In Sickness and Health: The Impact of Dementia on Marriage

When your spouse is diagnosed with dementia, it’s only natural to fall into a caregiver role. After all, you promised in sickness and in health, and caring for them is a gesture of your love. What spousal caregivers might not realize, though, is the effect this caregiving will have on their marriage. Dementia is a chronic, progressive disease, which means that eventually your role will shift from spouse to nursemaid.

“Spousal caregivers start off the journey feeling optimistic, because the level of care their loved one needs may not be great at the early stages,” says Andrea Campisi, Marketing and Admissions Director of The Reutlinger Community, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Danville, CA. “As the disease progresses, the spouse ends up shouldering more and more of the burden until it turns into a very challenging situation – not just for the one with dementia, but for the caregiving spouse as well.”

The danger, she says, comes from the fact that usually the caregiving spouse has health issues as well (since generally spouses are near the same age). Navigating the physical challenges of caring for someone with dementia, such as helping them in and out of the bath, getting them dressed and dealing with outbursts can be difficult for senior spouses. Caregiving spouses also become sicker more easily and experience depression at a high rate.

Unique Challenges of Dementia on a Marriage

All family caregivers can experience similar symptoms, but a spousal caregiver and their partner will face some unique challenges.

For example, older senior wives may not know how to handle finances, since their husbands always handled the money before. Spouses also have to deal with seeing the person they know best in the world turn into someone they don’t recognize anymore. Their social life may dwindle and die because they don’t enjoy going out now that their spouses can’t. It can be incredibly painful and overwhelming.

The individuals with dementia have to deal with changing roles as well – much to everyone’s frustration. They may feel left out or as if they’re being babied. They can feel like their spouse isn’t on their side anymore or isn’t telling them the truth about the situation.

Both spouses have to deal with the loss of what their marriage once was, as well as their plans for the future. This loss can take some time to adjust, and even longer to find a new balance in your lives. While these changes can be great, there still remain ways to nurture and develop your relationship with your spouse even as the disease progresses.

Adapting Everyday Activities

Most couples have activities they enjoy doing together, like taking walks, playing games, going biking or whatever else their interests may be. A dementia diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to stop your favorite activities, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t still do meaningful things together with your loved one. It may require a little tweaking of your schedule, or finding new activities to do together. Still, bonding through activities is one of the best ways to continue to nourish your relationship. Here are some ideas of activities you can do together:

  • Enjoying a meal
  • Listening to favorite songs from your childhood
  • Reading a story out loud together
  • Looking through photographs
  • Babysitting the grandchildren or visiting family
  • Taking a walk
  • Doing art, like painting or coloring
  • Watching a favorite movie or TV show

Activities aren’t limited to “fun” things. It’s also very important to make sure that the spouse with dementia is still involved and active in daily chores and the workings of the household. Look for things that your spouse is still able to do, or adapt your chores so that he or she is helping in some way. For example, your spouse can sort the silverware when you empty the dishwasher, or they open the mail for you. It may not be completely perfect, but that’s okay – the simple fact you’re doing things together and your loved one has a purpose is enough.

Intimacy and Dementia

Intimacy remains an important part of marriage even as we age. Your spouse with dementia yearns for intimacy as much as you do, so it’s important to find ways to keep that bond intact. Many couples are still able to enjoy sexual activity, but as the disease progresses, the desire can shift for either partner. This can leave both partners frustrated and lonely, but there are ways to express affection and intimacy beyond sexual activity. Here are some ways couples can find that “spark” and nourish the romantic side of their relationship:

  • Show affection physically by snuggling, holding hands, massaging or other gentle touches
  • Plan out routines that include time for you and your spouse to spend time together as a married couple
  • Spend time reminiscing with your spouse by telling stories, listening to favorite music and looking through old photographs
  • Engage in activities together, especially physical ones like walking or dancing

Intimacy also refers to sharing feelings, emotions and thoughts with one another. This is why it’s important for both parties to talk to each other, express how they’re feeling and be honest with one another. It’s a very lonely thing to not be able to share one’s thoughts and feelings with a partner. Sharing your vulnerability with your spouse shows them you trust them, you care about them and that you need them – all things we want to feel in a marriage.

Caring for the Caregiver

Spousal caregivers, just like other family caregivers, need to take time for themselves to relax, recharge and renew. Many spouses feel like they’re failing their marriage if they ask for help or want some time away from their partner. However, spending all your time caring for your spouse is draining and can leave you feeling hopeless, exhausted and angry. By asking for help and taking time out for you, you’ll be better able to connect with your spouse when you’re spending time with them.

For more information about how dementia affects marriage, or to learn more about our community, our culture and our mission and values, please contact us at 925-272-0261.

Premier Senior Living, Dedicated Care

Offering Assisted Living, Enhanced Assisted Living, Memory Care, Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation, The Reutlinger Community provides a continuum of care that allows seniors to live a life-enhancing and stimulating environment. Located in Danville, California, The Reutlinger Community’s newly renovated, 110,000 square foot community combines the comfort and familiarity of home with seasoned senior care and skilled nursing specialists to suit any seniors needs, allowing them to live the life they choose with freedom and security.

Because we specialize in a continuum of care, our residents never need to worry about leaving the community they call home or wonder what will happen when they need some more care. Residents and families alike can have peace of mind knowing that there are full-time licensed nurses available, along with activity coordinators, social workers, caregivers, a concierge and Rabbi who focus solely on helping each resident thrive. Even better, our services and amenities are equal to those of a state-of-the-art resort. This is the lifestyle and care that your loved one deserves.

At The Reutlinger Community, seniors have numerous opportunities to engage in award-winning programs that are designed to engage the mind, renew the spirit and provide opportunities to meet new people and learn something new. Whether residents are enjoying our art program and museum, listening to a lecture or educational program or attending spiritual programming and our wide range of activities, there’s something for each resident to love. Participate as much or as little as you like, the choice is all yours.

For more information or to schedule a personal tour, contact us today.