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Caring for a Dying Spouse

By: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 1 Feb 2017 | comments*Discuss
Terminal Illness Losing A Spouse Death

Marriage is one of the most sacred of unions, with couples vowing to love and take care of one another for all the days of their lives, come what may. At the delivery of a terminal diagnosis, those vows can really be put to the test, as one spouse is put in the difficult position of providing end-of-life care and counsel for the other.

Making Joint Decisions

For couples who have spent a lifetime sharing the joys and responsibilities of life, it can be difficult when one is put in charge of the other’s care. Most marriages find their own balance, but when one spouse is suddenly less capable, that balance shifts, sometimes making both members of the couple a bit uncomfortable. It is important for married couples to discuss their feelings and continue consulting one another regarding decisions, not only about the illness and treatment options, but also about everyday tasks and the other issues common to daily life. Keeping things as normal as possible can help to keep equality in the relationship, allowing both people to focus on what’s important – utilising their remaining time together in the best ways possible.

Seeking Outside Help

While it can be tempting for a healthy spouse to attempt solo caretaking for their dying partner, such unyielding determination to be all things can sometimes have negative consequences, especially if the terminally ill spouse has considerable physical needs. Constant caretaking can be quite exhausting, both physically and mentally, so hiring outside help to manage medical, and if necessary, bathing, feeding, and transportation needs can free up the healthy spouse’s energies for other interaction – tending to needs that can only be met by a loved one. When time is limited, effort should be made to keep the couple’s focus on nurturing relationships, fulfilling unachieved dreams, and creating an environment of loving support.

Reinforcing Emotional Ties

End-of-life care is far more wide reaching than simply managing medications and personal hygiene; emotional and spiritual needs must be addressed, too. The relationship that exists between married couples often serves as a base for their extended families, so it is important that time is carved out for whatever socialising the patient feels comfortable to do, as well as helping them to seek comfort, peace, and answers to any questions that they may have. The notion of death as a faraway event is far different than realising that the time is near – terminally ill patients are likely to feel senses of urgency about matters that they feel are unsettled. Spouses are often the ones who help them to address and complete any unfinished business.

Learning to Let Go

At some point, most terminally ill patients and those closest to them come to a point of acceptance and ready themselves for the end. Learning to let go is typically a gradual process; one that can be made easier by having the support of loved ones and a place to freely express even the most frightening of thoughts. In this arena, both people in a couple can help the other – the healthy spouse can provide a sounding board for the emotions of the terminally ill one, make sure that physical needs are met so that the focus can be on emotional, social, and spiritual issues, offer sentiments of love (and forgiveness, if necessary), and assure the dying spouse that although they will never be forgotten, their loved ones will be alright. The terminally ill spouse plays a big role in helping the surviving spouse to accept, heal, and ultimately find happiness. By reaffirming the love and appreciation that is felt for the healthy spouse and assuring them that they have been kind and supportive, dying spouses can minimise the feelings of guilt and regret in their surviving partner that are commonly associated with grieving.

Dying is part of life and at some point, most married couples are faced with the sad reality that one of them will outlive the other. Caring for a dying spouse encompasses a number of things, from managing health related issues to assuring that death comes with the comfort of knowing that loved ones are grateful to have shared this life.

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Sherry - Your Question:
My husband refuses to call in hospice so that I can be relieved of some of the care that is required. He has outlived his prognosis and he is failing more everyday. I need someone besides me to be responsible for his care and I need someone to talk to.

Our Response:
I am sorry to hear this, this must be an incredibly difficult situation for you both. You don't say whether you are currently having support from Macmillan nurses. If not, your husband will need to be referred by his GP, or hospital consultant. Macmillan nurses work throughout the country, but if there isn't a Macmillan service in your local area, you can be referred to alternative specialist services. You can see more via the Cancer Research page here and you can contact their helpline for direct support or if you just need someone to chat so when things get difficult. While your husband's choice may be to die at home where he feels safe and comfortable and where the surroundings are familiar - you also have to put across your feelings if you need some respite. People can combine being at home with having support from the local hospice, such as going for day care or short stays. Therefore, perhaps suggesting he goes initially for a short period of time may help. Please also see link here which shows how you can get help too. I hope this is of use.
TerminalIllness - 2-Feb-17 @ 11:36 AM
My husband refuses to call in hospice so that I can be relieved of some of the care that is required. He has outlived his prognosis and he is failing more everyday. I need someone besides me to be responsible for his care and I need someone to talk to.
Sherry - 1-Feb-17 @ 7:44 PM
I am not good at this.He is only 49 and we were to be married next summer.He won't make it that long.I have to work constantly to keep us fed and I get irritated with him for not being who is was and mad that our dreams together have had to change.I am afraid.
emilly - 11-Jan-17 @ 10:07 AM
I am having trouble dealing with my husband's sickness. He is in hospice now
Carol - 30-Apr-16 @ 12:44 AM
Are there any good books you could recommend for the spouse of a dying spouse?
Bob - 3-Aug-15 @ 3:12 AM
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