Assisted Living Spousal Relationships and Social Challenges

Couples living together in assisted living communities may have varying health and care needs. Additionally, assisted living spousal relationships reflect lifelong behavior patterns that may be challenging for care staff to understand.

For this reason, care staff working in communities can learn to be supportive by acknowledging the complexities of assisted living spousal relationships

How can married couples or partners with different care needs and personalities live successfully with others in an assisted living community even if they reside in the same or separate apartments?

Outgoing and Introverted Spouses

Some spouses are extremely social, desiring to be out in the community rather than remaining in the assisted living apartment. This social desire may be in direct conflict with a spouse who prefers isolation or the quiet of the assisted living apartment.

The spouse who chooses to remain in the room may be viewed as anti-social by other residents or the care staff. Additionally, the social spouse may be viewed by staff and residents as uncaring toward the less social spouse.

Provided that these spouses have lived with this social and isolating pattern for many years, both can live successfully in an assisted living community by continuing to follow their daily patterns and habits and ignoring others who might judge including residents and care staff.

Embracing the differences in assisted living spousal relationships and personalities is one way that care staff can be supportive. Encouraging each spouse to live according to their lifelong social patterns supports self-esteem.

Controlling or Overbearing Spouses

How many couples have a controlling restrictive spouse? This is the spouse who tells the other spouse to stop talking or who complains in public about the habits of a husband or wife.

Spouses can also be controlling of activities. For example, a husband may not want his wife to attend social outings without him, yet he hates socializing.

How many times do we hear, “he/she is always telling me what to do?” Or we hear one spouse uttering impatient statements to the other in public which makes everyone uncomfortable.

This situation is likely a life-long marriage pattern that does not change when a couple moves into an assisted living community. While these behavior patterns can make the care staff uncomfortable, it’s best to be encouraging and not get into the middle of assisted living spousal relationships.

Varying Spousal Care Needs

When one spouse takes care of the other spouse and the difference in ability or function is significant, residents of assisted communities sometimes marginalize or avoid establishing relationships with couples who have different care needs.

For example, if one spouse has dementia and yells in public or has inappropriate behaviors while in the main areas of the community (like a child who behaves poorly in public) other residents may object and say that the couple should spend more time in the dementia ward rather than subjecting residents in the main areas of the community to this type of inappropriate public behavior.

While many residents in assisted living communities acknowledge that they are becoming older and frail, they do not wish to associate with others who may have higher needs or exhibit public displays of disruptive behaviors. Older adults can be critical of others when fear exists about advancing physical or mental frailties.

Avoidance

Couples with different care needs may feel excluded from community interactions or may feel shunned by other residents. This couple also may be avoided by the other residents in the community because they are considered “needier” or more “problematic”.

While many residents in assisted living communities acknowledge that they are becoming older and frail, they do not wish to associate with others who may have higher needs or exhibit public displays of disruptive behaviors. Residents in assisted living may have previously been caregivers for spouses or family and resist re-initiating this role by establishing a relationship with couples who are caregiving for a spouse.

Expectations for assisted living spousal relationships with different care levels may not result in the type of situation hoped for that support greater social interaction and new friendships but may result in judgment and social isolation.

In these situations, community care staff can be supportive of each spouse becoming involved in activities suited to their abilities and social levels even if their participation is separate. This may allow the healthier spouse to take a break from being the caregiver to enjoy activities and build new social relationships.

Struggles of the Caregiver Spouse

The caregiver spouse represents a situation where the husband and wife life in different areas in the same community and are provided different levels of care due to physical or cognitive ability, and medical care needs. For example one spouse lives in assisted living and one spouse lives in memory care.

The healthier spouse may spend all of his or her time in memory care and receive little or no stress reduction versus being in a private residence with an equally healthy spouse. in these situations, care staff can help by encouraging the caregiver spouse to prioritize self-care activities.

The expectation by adult children was that life in assisted living and memory care for their parents would make life easier for the healthier parent. This is usually not the situation because the healthier spouse may not wish to create a separate life out of a sense of duty or responsibility.

Guilt often affects assisted living spousal relationships when a husband or wife has greater care needs. In these situations, it may be best for the spouses to live independently, one at home and one in a care community. This allows the healthier spouse an opportunity to rebuild a social life outside of the assisted living community.

Married Couples and Assisted Living Spousal Relationships

The choice to move to an assisted living community is an individual choice—perfect for some and not ideal for others. Prior to moving into assisted living, consider the reasons for moving versus remaining in a private residence where services may be accessed.

This is especially important for married couples who have different care needs as the vision of assisted living may be very different from reality. Care staff who are welcoming of the different lifestyles and resident situations can help ease these difficult transitions.

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