As featured in North Hawaii News September, 2016
Love and marriage. Try to separate them…it’s an illusion. Frank Sinatra first sang these profound words in 1955 and their meaning rings truer than ever when one partner in a marriage requires care. When it comes to the point that they can no longer contribute to the health of the relationship like they used to, the binding gel that keeps the relationship strong comes from a solid foundation of love. If you are a spousal caregiver, this scenario may feel uniquely yours, yet it is more common that you may realize.
Whenever I speak with spousal caregivers, both as they bring their loved one to our day center or in my Caregiving Conversations gathering at Tutu’s House, I see time and again that the affection for their spouse often takes a back seat to the details of their loved ones care. This is why I am reaching out to you today to suggest that you get back to the love!
The starting point of the marital flame seems to burn the brightest, so rehashing warm memories together is like adding lighter fluid. Re-telling the story of how you met is a nice alternative to managing the present details of caregiving. You could even create a journal with tales of your coming together. This creates a treasure for future generations and a nice collaborative project for the couple at the same time.
Even with cognitive challenges, the early stories of your relationship are often tucked away in long-term memory. Should your spouse be unable to respond to this approach, you could try telling them the story as if it was someone else. Just like the movie ‘The Notebook,” it seemed to help the husband to have his wife enjoy their love story in third person rather than experience her denials that they ever experienced those moments together.
Eventually severe symptoms of dementia may take the loved one back to the time before they were married and they may start looking for their parents to reassure them. Often they’ll reference their spouse as ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ because they know they are a safe figure in their lives but are unable to grasp the correct terminology. As understandable as the desire to clarify your role in their life would be, this will only agitate someone with advanced dementia. Their parents are their security, and the last thing you want to do is create more anxiety by giving them a dose of reality.
Taking some time every day to step back and value your loved one as the love of your life will help make your final years together more powerful. Whether they need physical or emotional support from you, cherishing each other as only the two of you can is what makes your relationship special.
I have been able to observe my own grandparents adore each other up until my grandfather’s passing this past week. They would have been married 73 years in October. They were great supports for one another. I will always treasure the experience of sitting with them during a memorable sunset at the Halekulani on Oahu, enjoying the live music and tales of early trips over on the SS Lurline. There is so much to cherish in a shared memory. Please take the time to share it with each other, as well as pass it along.