How a spouse can support the primary caregiver in the household

Understanding your partner's responsibilities and showing kindness help

Ray Burow avatar

by Ray Burow |

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“In sickness and in health, till death do us part.”

If you’ve attended many weddings, you recognize this phrase as the last sentence most brides and grooms say in their marriage vows. Immediately before my spouse, John, and I were pronounced husband and wife 35 years ago, we made that promise to each other.

Gratefully, we’ve had more health than sickness, and by God’s grace, we’re each still kicking. However, the “in sickness …  till death” part had a heftier meaning in the middle decades of our marriage. Our responsibility to each other in death and sickness extended to our aging parents. We were committed to each other and, in a sense, to each other’s parents, at least as we interpreted our vow.

John and I painfully said goodbye to our dads in the early and mid-2000s. A few years later, my mother slipped away from us. My sister and I were her primary caregivers following her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Mom lived between our two homes, and I cared for her at our house.

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But my husband didn’t recuse himself from that need. He was lovingly involved with my mother. He didn’t provide intimate, hands-on care, but he was intimately present. His respect and love for his mother-in-law never waned, and his commitment to be present in her sickness and death demonstrated his love for me. Neither of us could or would declare, “I never signed on for this.”

A few years after my mother’s passing, John’s mom moved in with us. My heart’s desire was to sign on for her, and do as well for her as her son did for me and my mother. We all did our best.

How to help a caregiving spouse

How we as a couple handled the caregiving may differ from others’ experiences. I’m not suggesting that you adopt our thinking on marriage vows. But there are ways a partner can assist the other who’s a primary caregiver, specifically when the person getting care is a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

A primary caregiver’s attention is divided, and their challenge is often balancing family with caregiving. Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease is a full-time job, so the spouse who isn’t the primary caregiver may feel ignored.

Try to keep in mind that caregiving is a season of life; it won’t last forever. In the meantime, don’t take the lack of attention personally. Make the most of the little moments in between the duties of active caregiving.

You can also speak to your caregiving spouse about possibly garnering outside help. If you can’t afford to have a professional caregiver come to your home, perhaps ask a trusted neighbor, family member, or friend to be available so you can spend time with your partner sans caregiving.

Before making such plans, however, speak to that caregiving spouse. They know what’s involved in their responsibilities. They should weigh in about who’s best suited to meet the patient’s particular need.

Support the person getting care, too

My husband had a good relationship with my mother before dementia, so he found it easy to be kind following her diagnosis. He didn’t leave me to mourn alone, but rather carried sadness as my mother’s brain became frail. That compassion supported me as well as her.

Your caregiving spouse may want to shield you from aspects of Alzheimer’s disease that disrupt your routine. For instance, my mother would invariably start a conversation with my husband when he was trying to watch the news or a movie, often asking or retelling the same story repeatedly. I’d gently ask her not to talk to John during those times.

Without fail, he’d respond, “She’s fine,” and then proceed to answer her questions or have a circular conversation. Of course, this response was sweet to my mother, but it also underscored his support for me as her caregiver. I didn’t need to worry that she inconvenienced him. It just wasn’t an issue, becoming one less problem I had to address.

Do what you can

The late tennis champion Arthur Ashe used to say, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” It’s a viral quote today, and for a good reason. Anyone can put it into action without needing much explanation.

Regarding caregiving, assess the current situation, determine the need, and figure out if you can address it, and how. Keep the line of communication open between you and your caregiving spouse. Ask them how and where you can support them. That could come in the form of a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or just standing nearby for the long caregiving haul.

Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.


Darrell Simino avatar

Darrell Simino

The vow "for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part" takes on a whole different meaning when taking care of a spouse with AZ. Taking care of a parent (which I have not had to do) is more easily delegated to another person, than delegating the spouses care. Caring for a spouse is traumatic, rewarding, frustrating and a duty of love. Until it becomes totally necessary, I stick by my vows.

Ray Burow avatar

Ray Burow

God bless you, Darrell. I agree. Caring for a spouse who has Alzheimer's disease, though it hasn't been my experience, is much worse than caring for an aged parent. Each circumstance is heart wrenching, but I pray that neither my husband or I will have to weather the type of storm you're experiencing. Though, like you, we'll remain committed to our vows; "In sickness ... and in death." It's a decision we made while we were strong and able, and one we'll stick to if and when the time arrives.
Thank you for your comment and for being part of the Alzheimer's News Today community.

May God sustain you as you contine providing care for your spouse.



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