In Sickness and In Health: Being the Caregiver of Your Spouse or Partner

By Karen Nettler, MSW

For many of us, we first enter into our relationships with our significant others in the prime of our lives — our 20’s and 30’s.  We repeat that familiar refrain with conviction: “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” But who can truly grasp what that could mean until circumstances change dramatically?

For countless couples not yet considered elderly, it becomes reality much sooner than they expected.   Through illness or accident, sometimes in an instant, or over an extended period of time, it happens that the relationship of a couple is severely challenged by a necessary change in roles.  Early onset dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or traumatic brain injury are just a few of the causes for this change in health status — and the resulting change in the relationship of two adult partners.

Where once both members of the couple may have been equal partners in raising a family, participating in the work force, enjoying a wide range of social and recreational activities, and looking forward to gracefully growing old and spending their “golden years” together, instead now their “new normal” relationship is quite different.

This “new normal” often means the “well spouse” is carrying the majority of the responsibility.  And now, as a consequence of a disabling condition in one partner, the “well spouse” has become a caregiver as well.  There are new tasks to shoulder, more demands on the caregiver’s time and energy, economic worries, and frustrations in dealing with the health care system.  Too often the demands and stresses of caregiving lead to social isolation, depression, and conflicted feelings such as resentment and guilt.  Many neglect their own needs, giving priority to the needs of spouse and family.  All of these reactions can compromise the physical and emotional health of the caregiving spouse or partner.

November is Family Caregivers Month.  The Well Spouse Association, a national non-profit membership organization dedicated to addressing the needs of the caregiving spouse or partner, offers the following suggestions:

  • Recognize your need to have a part of your life separate from the illness and spousal caregiving.
  • Take regular respite breaks. If necessary, hire an aide to look after your ill spouse.
  • Look for and accept support from wherever you can get it. Ask friends and family to do specific tasks.  Consider joining a peer support group of other spousal caregivers, like the Well Spouse Association.
  • Recognize the dangers of negativity and depression for a spousal caregiver, and seek professional help, such as talk therapy and medication if necessary.
  • Reflect a positive attitude of resilience, and a readiness to re-evaluate priorities. Adapt to the constantly changing “new normal” that the illness – the “elephant in the room” – brings.

JCS offers monthly support groups for Dementia Caregivers and Parkinson’s Disease.  In addition, Jewish Community Services provides a wide array of individualized services that can support individuals and families as they navigate this “new normal.”  Also, there are several Well Spouse Association support groups in Maryland.  For more information, visit www.wellspouse.org.


JCS provides a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland.  We offer guidance and support when you are seeking solutions for emotional well-being, aging and caregiving, parenting, job seeking, employers and businesses, achieving financial stability, living with special needs, and preventing risky behaviors. To learn more, please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.

Karen Nettler is a former Director of Community Connections for JCS.

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