Risks to Spousal Caregivers When Spouse is Ill

When one spouse of a married couple is in the hospital or dies, there is a risk that the other spouse will become ill or die.The level of risk for the caregiver depends on the type of medical condition that the ill spouse has. This study was done by Harvard Medical School. 500 couples age 65 or older were evaluated over a period of nine years. During that time, more than two-thirds of the individuals were hospitalized and more than one-third died. The study was able to evaluate how specific illnesses or diseases affect the caregiver partner.

A wife’s risk of death is 61 percent greater during the first 30 days following the death of her husband. If a wife dies, the husband’s risk of death during the first 30 days increases by 53 percent. Time tends to help people heal. After one year, surviving husbands in the study had a 21 percent increase in the risk of death, and surviving wives had a 17 percent increase.

One of the most significant finding of this study is the serious effect that a spouse’s hospitalization can have on the caregiver spouse. In some cases, the effect of sudden, serious illness is almost as devastating to the caregiver spouse as a death would be. This risk remains elevated for up to two years. The period of greatest risk is within 30 days of a spouse’s hospitalization or death.

Researchers have found that caregivers tend to have more of the following:
• Decreased ability to fight illness
• Slower healing rates
• Higher hospitalization rates
• Higher death rates
• Higher incidence of headaches, gastro-intestinal problems and insomnia
• Increased risk of heart disease
• Increased rates of poor general health

The following are examples of psychological effects common to caregivers.
• Depression
• Anxiety disorders
• Stress/ Burden
• Guilt
• Higher incidence of suicide

Emotional signs of caregiver stress and exhaustion include:
• Anger at self and the patient
• Social withdrawal from friends and activities
• Irritability leading to moodiness
• Negative thoughts and reactions
• Inability to concentrate
• Problems at work
• Alcohol and other substance use

Through all this muck is some good news. Research has also clearly shown that access to a good social support network can offset some of the physical, mental and emotional effects some caregivers deal with:
• Seek help for depression or stress. Don’t be afraid to recruit family and friends to help, or join a Caregiver Support Group. The first step is the hardest, but you will be glad you did.
• Call your local Area Agency on Aging. Find out about Respite Programs, Caregiver Care Coordination and other caregiver programs. Take advantage – they are there to help you.
• Inform yourself. Seek out educational resources online or at your local community or senior centers.
• Visit your doctor regularly. Prioritize your health; it is just as important to care for yourself as it is for the one that you love.

You can’t take care of your loved one properly without first taking care of yourself.

• Taking Care of Yourself
You, the caregiver, are incredibly important. The welfare of another person depends on you. If you aren’t in good health, that other person also may suffer. So, if you’ve taken on the role of a caregiver, you’ve also accepted a special responsibility to take care of yourself. That means taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, interpersonally and financially. Listen to your body. Your body will tell you when you are pushing yourself too hard.
• Pay attention to nutrition. Take your vitamins and make a good diet a part of your life.

Daily Renewal
Caregiving takes energy. Spend a little time every day renewing your energy before you become drained; that way you have a reserve to work from.
• Exercise! Try to squeeze it into your schedule, incorporate it into what you already do. Try walking more and see how your energy increases.
• Take time off. It is often easier said than done, but even just an hour can make a world of difference. Use family or community support to make this happen.
• Try relaxation techniques. You can do them anywhere, and they can often give you that extra energy you need. Do breathing exercises, meditate before bed or try aromatherapy. Do what works for you.

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