Aging at different rates is a common challenge that many couples face as they get older together. No matter the difference in your age or health now, certain mental and physical issues can cause you to age differently.
While a gap in health due to Alzheimer’s, cancer or heart disease can pose severe challenges for couples, there are other gaps that couples face, says Dr. Melissa Henston, a Geriatric Psychologist and Professor at the University of Denver. A gap in abilities and activities can cause both partners to feel frustration, guilt and a sense of lost independence. So, what can you do to overcome this gap?
Dr. Henston has helped many couples where one is physically active and vital and wants to live an active retirement, while the other partner is simply unable to keep up, for whatever reason.
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She has shared these tips to overcome a gap in health in your relationship today:
Dr. Henston sometimes sees couples where the physically capable partner pushes the other too much to be healthier. Sometimes the active person in the relationship thinks their partner “just isn’t trying hard enough,” Dr. Henston says. If one partner is physically gifted and the other has impairments, it can lead to arguments.
Just because you’re into fitness and are nutrition savvy, doesn’t mean that lifestyle will work for your partner. Ask yourself, “is what you’re asking from them possible?” Dr. Henston advises. “Involve doctors and family in this conversation.”
Dr. Henston advises that couples be very careful about making promises about the future. Saying ‘I promise I’ll never put you in long-term care,’ is a difficult promise to make because you don’t know what the future will look like — what if long-term care is the only safe alternative?
If you make a promise that you can’t keep you’ll experience a lot of unnecessary guilt about making decisions that could be the safest and most responsible choices for you and your partner.
Instead, go into the future armed with flexibility. Talk to your partner (ideally while you’re both healthy) about the possibility that you’ll age differently and discuss what this gap will look like. Then, when the time comes to be flexible enough to renegotiate your marriage as needed so that you can remain committed to each other’s happiness without dealing with feelings of guilt, regret or remorse.
As mental and physical abilities change you may need to re-examine the division of labor in your relationship. Older women may find themselves mowing the lawn, while older men may find themselves cooking or doing laundry for the first time. “When we can’t carry our load anymore then the burden shifts to our partner,” Dr. Henston says. “It’s okay to ask for help.”
If you’re taking on a task you’ve never done before it’s okay to ask your partner for help, too. Ask them how and when to do the tasks that they were previously responsible for. It’s likely you’ll find a new appreciation for their contributions!
As the division of labor for your partner increases it’s important to recognize when it becomes too much. When you’re both healthy, talk about what you think will work for you as a couple and keep in mind that it’s important for family caregivers to give themselves permission to live their life.
Specifically, talk about giving each other permission to make difficult choices to ensure everyone’s best interests are considered. This means discussing long-term care when it’s no longer safe to remain at home and even dating again if one partner has late-stage dementia, or is for some other reason no longer able to participate in a loving relationship.
This may mean negotiating family expectations and opinions, which will require you to talk to your adult children about your decisions. Having these discussions now will help relieve feelings of guilt that hold some active seniors back from living a happy life.
If one partner is more physically active than the other, try to compromise so both partners feel fulfilled. For example, Dr. Henston has helped one couple where “she is physically impaired and he is active. They travel to locations where he can kayak while she stays at the lodge and she doesn’t feel she is deprived.”
Planning travel that will accommodate both couples’ abilities, activity levels and interests can help you stay connected while each pursuing your own interests.
Some couples struggle to accept that the terms of their marriage have changed and so expectations need to change too.
In one couple’s situation, the “wife had a heart condition and they had always split all their expenses. She could no longer split the expenses because she was no longer drawing income,” Dr. Henston says. Her partner needed to renegotiate his expectations to match their current reality.
“Marriage is a constant contract negotiation,” Dr. Henston says. “As couples go through each phase of life they need to re-examine their marriage expectations and re-negotiate the dynamic of their relationship.”
Talk to your partner while you’re both still healthy to put a plan in place to manage health needs and expectations throughout your marriage. What could a decline look like? How would a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or cancer, etc… change your marriage expectations?
With these strategies in hand, you’ll be better able to navigate a gap in health that is often inevitable for couples.
Have you and your partner successfully navigated a gap in health? What strategies have helped you? We’d like to hear your stories in the comments below.