Within the world of caregiving, there are many relationship dynamics — adult children caring for their elderly parents, parents caring for special needs children, a spouse caring for their partner, and many others.
Certainly the circumstances of each caregiving experience differs in the challenges, the responsibilities, and rewards. The role of being a caregiver to one’s spouse can be particularly trying, especially if it comes well before the golden years.
Karen Garner, is a 42-year old mother of an 8-year old and an 11-year old, who juggles a full-time job, motherhood and caring for her 50-year old husband who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the Mayo Clinic, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease strikes people before the age of 65, and it is very uncommon to strike someone before their 50s. Karen’s husband had symptoms of the disease for at least two to four years prior to his diagnosis. Early-onset Alzheimer’s appears to be genetic, and her husband’s mother and brother both had Alzheimer’s disease.
“I feel really bad for Jim,” she said of her husband. “I hate to see such a nice person go through and to have my kids go through this.”
Karen said that she is very concerned about whether or not her own children will inherit the disease. “My whole purpose in life is to help find a cure before my kids get affected by it,” she said.
But for now, she is dealing with day-to-day life as a caregiver to a husband in his prime of life who can no longer work or be depended on for things as basic as remembering to put ice in a cooler.
“It is frustrating for me not to be able to rely on him like I used to,” she said. Always a multitasker, the first signs of his disease included the inability to remember five or six things at a time. “He would say things completely out of character—things that didn’t make sense.”
The most innocent question from the children can easily spiral into what she calls “a less-than-ideal parenting or marriage situation.” For example, one of the kids asked how speed limits were determined and Jim answered, “By the number of potholes.” Karen tried to answer correctly without putting her husband down in front of their children. “I have to control my response to him,” she said. “It takes a lot for me.”
Right now, Jim is still able to safely drive the children to their nearby school, and make something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich by himself. “Anything that would require reading directions, he cannot do,” she said. “He used to be able to cook small, simple meals, like scrambled eggs. But then one time he put cinnamon in my eggs.” When she questioned him about, he claimed that she always liked cinnamon in her eggs.
“It is like a third child,” Karen said. “When you have a typical healthy child, they listen and learn, and you can punish them for not doing what you tell them to do. The difference is he is getting worse and you can repeat yourself 100 times and he is not going to remember and learn.”
Once a spousal relationship becomes more parental, a lot changes. The Mayo Clinic notes that loss of intimacy with a partner who has early-onset Alzheimer’s is common, and Karen admits there has been a change. “It’s not as intimate, definitely,” she said. “It’s not the same equal balance of responsibilities. It’s a changing type of marriage, our roles have changed, and there is still a lot of love and respect and caring for each other.”
Although Jim is still very functional, Karen describes the worries about money, have responsibilities akin to a single parent, concern about how rapidly his disease will progress as exhausting, she remains practical.