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Caring for a Spouse After a Stroke

Four ways to preserve your sanity, self, life and relationships while caregiving

Colleen and Tom were an average couple. Colleen was a full-time homemaker and mom. Tom worked as the manager at an athletic store and coached his son’s flag football team. Then, on a crisp autumn day while Tom was coaching, he suffered a massive stroke. Colleen’s marriage as she knew it ended. She, like many caregiving spouses, faced many questions.

When you're in the position of caring for a loved one who has survived a stroke, it is important to learn how to interpret and move through the maze of roadblocks that can keep you from having a fulfilling life together. The day-to-day matters of life can get to be a challenge. These include your role as a caregiver, your own self-care, your ongoing life, household management, sleep, sex and intimacy, changes and strains on your marriage that you weren’t prepared for – and let’s not forget current and future finances, to name a few.

Whether you are caring for your husband, wife or life partner, here are four universal strategies Colleen and others in this situation can use to handle these and other challenges.

Understand your worries and fears

Like you, Colleen had many worries, fears, and strong emotions. Did she even have it within herself to be a caregiver? She learned these worries, fears and strong emotions are not only normal, but to be expected – and that you can do something about them. If you don't, they'll bleed into your care of your loved one, possibly damaging both of you.

Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. And you've likely got a lot of strong ones now – with good reason. If you're angry, don't be mean or passive-aggressive. There are healthy ways to release the anger through talking, writing, and imagery. If you're afraid, discuss that with your spouse, if appropriate. In confidence, share your strongest emotions with a close friend or support group so those emotions don't eat you up.

Reclaim your special connection with your spouse

Colleen used to be able to talk to Tom about anything, but suddenly she didn’t know how. She was afraid he might be hurt by anything she brought up, or she might spoil a happy moment by raising serious topics. But then she tried some new communication techniques that were immensely helpful. Whether it was mobility issues, their sex life, or what to do about family and friends, she now had a way to do it.

First, she sorted out her concerns – deciding what she really needed to talk about with Tom. Then she learned how to approach him to set up a “talking date” and choose a setting that would assist their conversation. She prepared and calmed herself – and began the most important conversations of her life. Because she learned to speak to Tom in a way that was compassionate and effective, now they were able to take the first steps to mutual agreement. By creating understandings and agreements, you as a caregiver can still have your life, and the two of you can still have your marriage.

Work together, rather than enabling or controlling.

Colleen learned not to do for Tom what he really can and should do for himself. This enabling will create an invalid. She avoided micromanaging what he's able to do, even if he doesn’t do it well. In their discussions, they agreed on what they’ll expect of each other and what she is willing to do and not do. You’ll actually create precious time for yourself by not taking on jobs that should be done by others – including your loved one. If you do less enabling with everything and everybody, you'll create more energy for yourself and you'll have less anger. And, you’ll create the time to care for yourself – so you will survive these difficult times.

Discover dos and don’ts

You’ll learn that you can survive and even have fun using specific dos and don’ts that make your life simpler. Here are a few:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help wherever or however you feel you need it. If you can afford hired help, insist on it. If you can’t, then ask friends, family, and agencies for help
  • Don’t feel guilty that you still have a life and still can have fun. Life may not always seem fair, but that doesn’t mean life is wrong.
  • Do know that the survivor’s journey and your journey are not one and the same. You’ve got different things for which to prepare, so don’t get lost on their path.
  • Don’t be embarrassed about your spouse’s limitations. It has nothing to do with your character or how good a partner you are.
  • Do look at the humor in your mutual imperfection and try to laugh rather than to criticize. This applies to yourself as well as to your spouse.

Don’t be responsible for making your spouse happy.  While it is your responsibility to keep your love safe, if they aren’t able; only they can make themselves happy.

By: Diana B. Denholm, Ph.D., LMHC, author of The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook: Caring for Your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yourself

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"By creating understandings and agreements, you as a caregiver can still have your life, and the two of you can still have your marriage."

About the Author

Diana Denholm, PhD, has been a board certified psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For 11 years, she was the primary caregiver to her husband during a series of grave illnesses. Her critically-acclaimed book, The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook: Caring for Your Seriously Ill Husband, Caring for Yourself, offers hope, advice and resources for women and men caring for their spouses with long-term illnesses.

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