Caring for a Much Older Spouse – The Caring Generation®

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The Caring Generation® – Episode 100 August 25, 2021. On this mini-podcast program, caregiving expert Pamela D Wilson responds to questions posed by caregivers: What Caregivers Should Know About Caring for a Much Older Spouse and how to manage age gap caregiver relationships?

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Caring for a Much Older Spouse

Caregivers ask, what should we know about caring for a much older spouse? Caring for a much older spouse begins with being realistic about the short and long-term effects of age gaps. The ability to have open conversations instead of sweeping aging under the rug is important. In this article and mini-podcast, I share topics to help caregivers of all ages gain insights about the impacts of being a caregiver on spousal and partner relationships.

Caregiving: Older Spouses and Age Gap Relationships

Watch More Videos About Caregiving and Aging on Pamela’s YouTube Channel

Let’s talk about what caregivers can learn from caring for aging parents that translates to marital relationships and caring for spouses. Instead of being left in the dark, it’s better to become aware of unexpected issues that can negatively impact caring for aging parents or a much older spouse before you find yourself in this position.

If you are already a caregiver for a spouse, some of these tips may help you begin discussions and make a plan so that you don’t feel stuck or become resentful.  If you are a caregiver for aging parents, this information will help you talk to your partner or spouse about decisions you will face when one of you is the first person to need care. I know. These are all difficult topics. Not pleasant to think about and even more uncomfortable to discuss.

Not talking about aging issues or hoping that none of this will happen to you won’t stop the clock. Let’s start with the effects of age gaps on caring for a much older spouse with a gap of 5, 10 years, or more. When you are young—5 or 10 years doesn’t make much of a difference. As married couples age, the long-term implications are significant. If you are caring for aging parents, you might be watching these events happen in your parent’s relationships. 

Retirement Timing

If you are trying to help parents, you might be frustrated with refusals or delays in decision-making. Do your best to be patient and empathetic. I share more on the topic of patience with parents in The Caring Generation podcast, How to Have Patience With Elderly Parents. An interview with Dr. Joan Monin from the Yale School of Public Health shares research about the distress caregivers feel watching loved ones who are sick and suffering.

This insight may help you understand why caregiving is stressful for caregivers and how our actions to care for ourselves, or not, have long-lasting effects on partners, spouses, and family members.  This concept is difficult to grasp if you are not yet a caregiver or young and without health concerns. When you are in this it is common to struggle to adapt to changes that aging and health changes bring.

Many adults are in denial and do nothing. Number one for caring for a much older spouse is the difference in retirement timing. Your husband is 65. You are 55. He retires. What is your plan as the younger spouse? Have you talked about retirement timing? Does your older spouse play all day in retirement while you continue to follow your career passions for another ten years?

Or will you feel resentful as the younger spouse who has to continue to work to support the family? If your older spouse has health issues, have you discussed quitting your job to become a full-time caregiver? It is imperative to evaluate all aspects of this decision before deciding as the effect on the younger spouse’s health, well-being, and financial prospects are significant.

Life Expectancy

Most adults take good health for granted when they have a lifetime ahead. It’s not later until a spouse or parent has health issues that you feel that sinking feeling and worry in the pit of your stomach about how you will manage.  If you are a young adult listening and you are not married or are early in your marriage, the importance of talking about health and well-being is important for your future.

If you have health issues today, this will impact your marital and family relationships and earning ability. With married couples, especially those with a ten-year age gap or more – have discussions about health. Make a plan for what happens for each spouse at retirement age. Talk about wishes for burial or cremation. Get it all out on the table.

Add to this conversation the topic of life expectancy to care for a spouse. If you are the younger spouse, a standard assumption is that the older spouse will die first due to advanced age or health issues.

As a result, care costs for the older spouse’s health issues may consume the majority of marital assets leaving little or no financial resources for the care of the caregiving spouse. A husband needing care and dying first means that wives are left with no money for their care needs unless substantial savings exist.

Preparing for Age Gaps and Caregiving

How can the age gap and all couples in this situation prepare? Most couples don’t have the luxury of one spouse not working for the entire existence of a marriage.

If you are the younger spouse and your spouse retires before you or has health issues do your best to keep working until retirement age. This allows you to continue to earn and save money and maintain employer health insurance, which, as we know, can be a significant expense if you pay for healthcare outside of an employer-sponsored healthcare plan.

For both spouses, especially the older spouse, making health and fitness a priority can make the retirement you dream about more likely. Health problems and related expenses are the top reason that retirement plans go sideways. Do everything in your power to remain healthy, fit, and active.

Model and encourage these behaviors in your children. When life goes sideways, the healthy spouse becomes the primary caregiver for the sick spouse, followed by children.

If you are retired and have health issues that affect you daily, consider your younger and working spouse. Do as much for yourself as possible. Become proactive about preventative and medical care. If you’re not motivated to do this for yourself, do it for your spouse and your children, who will be your caregivers.

Become educated about your health diagnosis. Investigate the current and long-term effects. Do whatever it takes to minimize risks and requiring care from others. By looking at retirement as an opportunity to invest more time in self-care, all married couples, including those with age gaps, can be better positioned to avoid costly care needs or having the caregiving spouse feel burdened by the significant needs of a sick spouse.

caring for a much older spouseHow to Pay for Care for a Spouse

Another practical consideration not discussed in families is purchasing long-term care insurance for the younger spouse, usually the wife. If you are a wife, regardless of your marital situation and any age gaps that might exist, purchasing long-term care insurance for the younger spouse is a must.

Women are more likely to take time out of the workforce to have and raise children. Women are the primary caregivers for aging parents and spouses. Time out of the workforce equals lost wages and lower social security payments that negatively impact retirement planning. Couples and individuals with experience caring for aging parents understand the related mental and physical stress.

Primary concerns in caring for aging parents are similar to caring for spouses. Who will be the caregiver? Where will care be provided—everyone wants to stay at home. No one wants to live in a nursing home.  Plus care costs—how to pay for care when caring for a much older spouse. Medicare does not pay for all the care you need after age 65. Your social security and retirement savings pay for your care.

Costs of Caring for a Spouse Can Consume Marital Assets

When a person needs care, the time to earn and save money Is in the past. If caring for a much older spouse, then the majority of the working spouse’s income goes toward care costs instead of building a retirement nest egg.

The time to prevent and understand health issues is when first diagnosed. Ignoring high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions will likely add additional health complications later in life. When health issues advance for a husband or wife, the healthy spouse begins to take on more responsibilities shared by the couple.

Let’s talk about caring for a much older spouse and aging parents specific to personal and emotional effects.  A spousal caregiver recently described caring for a husband as “doing” because it’s the right thing to do but mentioned losing all sense of being a couple and the previously established intimacy.

Caregivers of all ages and situations, whether caring for aging parents, grandparents, siblings, or spouses, talk about the sense of responsibility and duty.  Those caring for a much older spouse admit to knowing that the possibility of caring for a spouse existed. Few if any caregivers were involved in family discussions before care responsibilities arose.

Effects of Physical Weakness and Memory Loss

What does this tell us? Individuals don’t talk about health, well-being, aging, and caregiving enough because few people lead these conversations. That’s why I’m here.

Next in the list of caring for a much older spouse or parents is difficulty performing physical hands-on care tasks. Hands-on care can be worrisome If you are a caregiver for a person larger than you in stature or weight who becomes physically weak. Then you are both at risk for injury.

This factor places greater emphasis on the care-receiver to participate in physical exercise to maintain strength to walk independently, transfer in and out of chairs, get in and out of the shower and perform other activities safely. When these activities become difficult due to physical weakness or illness, bringing help into the home, or moving a loved one to a care community are options to avoid injury or an unsafe care situation.

In addition to physical weakness, a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or any other type of cognitive impairment increases the stress placed on the caregiver. Persons with memory loss eventually need 24/7 care and cannot be left alone due to safety concerns.

Caring for a spouse or aging parents with dementia is similar to caring for a newborn who requires feeding, dressing, bathing, changing, and supervision for safety. While physical disabilities can sometimes be managed through physical exercise and strength building, memory loss is a path that goes in one direction—advancing memory loss and greater overall reliance on the caregiver.

Caregiver Isolation and Depression

If you are in a partner, marital, or caring for aging parents situation and the person needing care has physical disabilities, is becoming weaker, or has a diagnosis of memory loss, it’s time to have honest conversations about the future. Both situations of needing hands-on care and supervision due to memory loss often result in isolation and feelings of depression and hopelessness for caregivers.

Caregivers feel stuck and tell me that finding motivation for self-care activities is challenging. Caregivers feel that their lives pass them while everything outside of the caregiving situation continues to move forward. Regarding self-care and time alone, small breaks here and there are helpful, but it’s not the same as being in control of your life 24/7. The guilt, resentment, and anxiety that caregivers feel become extreme.

Add to this the feelings of the person who needs care who many times becomes hostile or unappreciative. The care receiver feels a lack of control that results from needing help from another person. Additionally, care receivers may feel like a burden to loved ones. So we have two people in a relationship, and both are stressed. The person who needs care may be socially isolated and unable to leave home without hands-on assistance.

Caregiver Support Systems

The caregiver may also be socially isolated or, if not, hesitate to share information about the actual situation with friends who may not be interested or more likely who do not understand. Online caregiver support groups or caregiver groups in person become support systems for caregivers who want to openly discuss caregiving challenges and seek solutions.

While caregivers become frustrated caring for a much older spouse, sicker spouse, or aging parents, where is the support system for the care recipient? Often there isn’t one.

Imagine how you might feel if you were isolated in your home with no friends or anyone to talk about your care situation and your caregiver was frustrated or impatient with you. You might feel like a caged lion. Feeling trapped in a situation over which you have little control can make a person negative, unappreciated, and fearful.

Caregivers, trying to be helpful can exert too much control over the care receiver’s life by taking away choices. Are you a caregiver facing an uphill battle? For example, a spouse or parent who refuses to participate in physical therapy, take medications, or do small things that could make them feel better?

Move Forward To Reduce Self-Doubt and Worry

spousal caregivingAre you living with a spouse who is 65 but seems like 80? As the caregiver, do you question your actions because you lack medical experience or don’t know what more you can do to help – so you feel at a loss?

If you are caring for a much older spouse or in any care situation, focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want. I know – this is not always easy, but you can do it.

Let other people in your life, own their negative feelings. Stop feeling frustrated, anxious, or angry because of how you think others should respond or act. Look towards solutions to improve your emotional state.

Think about how you want to feel without putting conditions on feeling good. Avoid thinking I will be happy when X happens. Why not choose to be happy today? Identify the thoughts that hold you back. Release resistance to the idea of change. Change may be necessary to improve your situation.

Continuing to struggle works against your ability to be positive and to move forward. Identify solutions so that the caregiver and the care-receiver both get some of what you want. It may not be possible for everyone to get what they want. Consider compromising. Discuss solutions in person, not over email or the telephone.

Suggest trial periods for change and commit to making the change. For example, the care-receiver this week will do X every day to become more independent and self-sufficient. The caregiver will do Y. One path through frustration, exhaustion, and overwhelm is a positive mindset combined with thoughtful action.

Start talking to yourself differently, encourage yourself, be positive and be your own best friend. Find friends and professionals who can support you in creating a plan for caring for a much older spouse and yourself.

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©2021 Pamela D Wilson, All Rights Reserved




About Pamela Wilson

PAMELA D. WILSON, MS, BS/BA, NCG, CSA helps caregivers and aging adults solve caregiving problems and manage caregiving needs through online programs, live support groups, and an extensive caregiving library that includes articles, podcasts, videos, and webinars.

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