Becoming the carer: He described his invalid wife as a ‘walking divil’
As family caring becomes more common, we must pay attention to the emotional side
Researchers at Yale University found that when a husband cares for his wife, her distress levels can increase. Photograph: Getty
I once heard a man describe his wife whose carer he had become after she had a stroke, as “a walking divil” though she was not able to walk much anymore.
A woman told me of the stress she felt at visiting her father to care for him because of the verbal anger he directed at her.
As family caring becomes more common with the ageing population we would do well to pay attention to the emotional side of caring. Apart from its effect on quality of life, emotional stress increases blood pressure.
That emotional side can vary for men and women, possibly because of traditional gender roles.
For instance, researchers at Yale University found that when a wife cares for her husband, his blood pressure and distress fall. But when a husband cares for his wife, the blood pressure of both of them remains higher than normal and the wife’s distress level can increase.
The researchers at Yale think this is linked to traditional roles between men and women. Men are more used to getting support from women in terms of emotion and health; indeed men expect more support than women expect. Women, on the other hand, are more used to giving support. Being in a position of having to receive support can make them uncomfortable in itself.
Therefore, for the woman there is a greater role reversal involved in receiving care from her male partner and role reversals can be hard to adjust to.
Research tells us about people in general but individuals differ. A man to whom the concept of receiving care is unfamiliar and unwelcome would also, I expect, find his blood pressure going way up if he found himself in that position.
And if either recipient of care makes life tough for the caregiver, everybody suffers.
What can be done to make life easier for the person doing the caring? The study found that if, as a recipient of care, you are able to express your feelings this reduces the stress experienced by the caregiver. We are talking about feelings such as compassion for the caregiver or even expressing an appreciation of the sacrifice the other person is making. All of this seems to help to reduce stress, perhaps because of the acknowledgement it involves.
Self care on the part of the caregiver also helps. It’s very easy for people who are caring for a partner to go into full sacrifice mode in which they think only about the other person.
But the research suggested that when caregivers pay some attention to their own feelings of sadness, upset and helplessness they feel less stress than those who are unwilling to spare a thought for themselves. In other words, caring for yourself can help you to get through this experience in better shape than just seeing everything through a lens of self-sacrifice.
Also, caregivers who think about positive aspects of their lives with the other person are less stressed. The other person can help with this y putting some emphasis on those positive aspects if they can.
Caring is, in most cases, an expression of love and in that sense caring can bring the two people closer together emotionally.
What we can take away from the research is the importance of the need for people to be able to express the positive aspects of their relationship and to discuss their emotions. This need is, of course, important throughout the life of a relationship – not just when illness strikes. Also, carers need time and space in which to look after themselves and their own emotions and stresses. And being cared for isn’t easy either.
The Yale research is led by Associate Prof Joan Monin and readers can find more on this subject in American Psychological Association’s Monitor at http://bit.ly/yalecare
Ireland has about 200,000 family carers according to Family Carers Ireland which was formed from a merger between Caring for Carers Ireland in County Clare and The Carers Association in Dublin. They have a helpline at 1800 240724.
Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.