Updated 10 January 2014

In sickness and in health

Getting married means promising to support your spouse through good times and bad. But is fulfilling this promise sometimes just too great a burden to bear when the person you married becomes seriously ill?

Getting married means promising to support your spouse through good times and bad. But is fulfilling this promise sometimes just too great a burden to bear when the person you married becomes seriously ill?

The fact is that the healthy partner often pays a high price as the caregiver. What’s more, caregivers are often reluctant to admit that they feel stressed because they feel guilty. This guilt, experts warn, can lead to physical and emotional burnout – a state that intensifies the guilt and ultimately also gives rise to feelings of failure.

Caregivers also often carry an unnecessarily heavy burden because they allow the situation to become serious before seeking help. “Many are in denial about their partner’s problems,” says Aletta Louw, who has specialised in geriatric and disabled nursing. “I often hear excuses like ‘my husband has always been a little confused’ when the truth is he has Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. Caregivers also often shy away from putting a loved one in a home.”

Among the illnesses caregivers develop as a result of the enormous pressure they’re under are stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, diabetes, and poor eating habits or eating problems. Out of pure frustration caregivers often turn to alcohol or overeating, and they don’t get enough stress-releasing exercise because they can’t get out of the house.

Caregivers’ chances of becoming fatally ill are also 64% higher than those of partners who don’t play a caregiving role. The risk can persist or worsen if the loved one dies. Louw says doctors often find that patients develop cancer or chronic diseases 18 months after their spouse passes away.

But it’s not just the caregiver whose stress levels increase. “The patient also realises something is seriously wrong but can’t always put it into words. This causes frustration, which can lead to further behavioural problems and deterioration.”

Potential pitfalls
Louw cautions about the problems a caregiver might encounter:

- Abuse: Caregivers (of people with dementia, for example) can be subjected to serious aggression and can even be assaulted. They often don't tell anyone and suffer in silence.

Advice: Swallow your pride and ask friends and relatives for help so you can form a support network.

- Social isolation: It's difficult to expose a once-proud/clever/talented partner to the outside world in his or her new state. But not doing so can lead to total isolation.

Advice: Join a support group or go for therapy so you can talk about your emotions, frustrations and problems. Adult children must be involved in caring for a sick parent; if they take over for just one day a week, a caregiver gets an essential break to go out without worrying or just to rest.

- Self-neglect: Caregivers often put their own needs, whether physical or emotional, after those of the ill person. They justify this by saying there's not enough time or money for themselves. Often there is literally no one to care for the sick person while a caregiver goes to the doctor.

Advice: Many local authorities, welfare organisations and homes for the aged have programmes for caregivers and their dependants. In some cities there are even daycare centres where dependants can spend a few hours while caregivers take a break or see to their own health. Find out about programmes like this near you. Get medication if you're suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Take supplements and eat healthily to boost your immune system. And don't neglect your hobbies. It's essential that you relax.

(Betina Louw and Natanya Mulholland, Health24)


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