By Barry J. Jacobs, Psy.D
The 70-year-old husband whose wife suddenly has had a stroke is at first full of resolve and tenderness. He means to make good on his wedding vows and demonstrate his love after 45 years of a good marriage by protecting and caring for her during her time of need. But, after three years of caregiving, he is fulfilling the obligations of those vows but not the spirit. He continues to help her get around the house and feeds her but now regards her resentfully as a source of chores rather than as the wellspring of his happiness. He has long since stopped confiding in her about his feelings for fear that doing so would only upset her. Their relationship seems to be circumscribed by the drudgery of the day’s arduous caregiving tasks. All sense of intimacy—emotional or physical—has vanished from their marriage.
Not all long-term caregiving families experience a diminution of love among family members. For some, providing care to a loved one is so meaningful an endeavor that their relationships deepen; they cherish each other more, not less. But, for many others, caregiving itself becomes anathema to intimacy. Their actions become motivated more by obligation than love. Feeling entrapped by those obligations and whipsawed by resentments and guilt, they wind up distancing themselves emotionally from their ill or disabled family members to whom they’re ostensibly devoting their lives.
As a clinical psychologist who has worked with families coping with illness for nearly 20 years, I’ve struggled to help relatives protect the intimate bonds among them as a means of preserving their quality of life and capacities for coping with adversity. To be truthful, I usually only partially succeed. Because illness alters the balances of give-and-take between members, it changes their relationships usually for the worse. But I’ve developed several strategies that are helpful for some families:
There are many corollaries to each of these strategies. I explore them at length (as well as six other essential tasks for family caregiving) in my new book, just published by Guilford Publications (see title below). For more information on it, please see my website. To read a sample chapter, click on the cover of the book below or go here.
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