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The Toll of Caring for a Spouse with Dementia

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenNovember 25, 2015
The Toll of Caring for a Spouse with Dementia

Caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can be challenging. It’s normal to feel depressed, frustrated and tired when caregiving. 

If you’re feeling this way, know you’re not alone. Learn what to look for and why it’s important for caregivers to also take care of themselves while caring for a spouse with dementia.

The Toll of Caring for Dementia

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, caregivers provide an estimated 18.4 billion hours of unpaid care to loved ones with dementia.

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This noble undertaking can stretch the caregiver’s limits and takes a significant toll, both emotionally and physically. Therefore, learning to recognize the signs of caregiver burnout are important.

When caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s or dementia, caregivers are commonly impacted by the following:

  1. Stress: There’s no way around it; caregiving is stressful. Family caregivers of loved ones with a dementia report significant levels of stress. Managing all aspects of a household without help while simultaneously shouldering the burden of full-time caregiving is grueling. What’s more, spousal caregivers are usually seniors themselves, so they often have to face the most difficult challenge of their life while experiencing their own age-related health problems.
  2. Depression: Watching someone close to you slowly slip away is deeply saddening. This sadness often comes from a feeling of loss —the loss of your marriage as you knew it, the loss of happier days, the loss of leisure time. It’s normal to be sad in these circumstances, but too often this sadness becomes clinical depression, which impairs the ability to function normally and can cause people to “let themselves go.”
  3. Health Issues: Caring for someone with a memory disorder can also be physically detrimental. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “caregivers of a spouse with Alzheimer’s or other dementias are more likely than married non-caregivers to have physiological changes that may reflect declining physical health.” Some of these health problems include decreased immune function, higher blood pressure, increased odds of coronary heart disease and slower wound healing.
  4. Financial Problems: Full-time caregiving and a day job usually aren’t compatible. Spousal caregivers who work often have to give up employment and retire early. Furthermore, the cost of paid care, which often becomes necessary, can wreak financial havoc.

It’s important to recognize that these four areas of impact are interconnected. For instance, stress and depression can provoke health problems, and vice versa.

Working to mitigate negative impacts in one of these areas will be beneficial in other areas.

Caring for Yourself: Crucial When You’re a Caregiver

There are certainly positive aspects of caregiving too, such as the satisfaction we get from helping someone who we love very much, but it’s clear that family caregivers, particularly caregiving spouses, frequently sacrifice their own physical and mental wellbeing for their loved one.

When they try to do too much, or to do everything, they are inviting what the caregiving community calls “caregiver burnout.” Spousal caregivers should recognize that by taking care of themselves and keeping well, they will be better caregivers for their loved ones.

You can learn more about dementia in A Place For Mom’s Dementia Guide.

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Dana Larsen
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Dana Larsen

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