Caring for a sick or disabled elderly relative exacts a toll — physical, emotional, financial — on any family member, but being a spousal caregiver brings particular challenges.
“Spouses are older and dealing with their own age-related health limitations,” says Steven H. Zarit, a Pennsylvania State University gerontologist. The tasks they shoulder have grown more demanding: Family caregivers now administer arsenals of medications and undertake procedures, from wound care to dialysis, that were once the province of medical professionals.
Moreover, today’s longer life spans, in which once-fatal conditions such as heart disease have become manageable chronic illnesses, mean that the “sickness” part of “in sickness and in health” can last for many years. Spouses determined to single-handedly honor their vows, says Suzanne Mintz of the National Family Caregivers Association, “are using their old rules to fight a new problem.”
The medical and psychological literature have long reported that caregivers face risks to their own well-being, especially when they’re caring for people with dementia. Caregivers under stress have higher levels of depression and anxiety; their immune systems suffer. A 2005 Commonwealth Fund overview found that caregivers of all ages reported chronic conditions — including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and arthritis — at nearly twice the rate of non-caregivers, 45 percent vs. 24 percent.
In an oft-cited study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999, University of Pittsburgh researchers followed nearly 400 elderly spousal caregivers for four years and reported that those experiencing mental or emotional strain had 63 percent higher mortality rates than non-caregivers. (Caregivers not experiencing emotional or mental strain did not have elevated mortality rates.)
And a study published this year by a team from the University of South Florida and the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that high caregiving strain among spouses increased the risk of strokes by 23 percent; the association was particularly strong among husbands caring for wives.