If you have children, you have likely been lulled into the media images of aging. Most of them portray healthy, elderly couples surrounded by their happy families: children, grandchildren and a frolicking puppy or two thrown in for good measure. There is the assumption that family will be there for support and assistance when you are old. 

It’s easy to agree that it’s a lovely picture, and if you are fortunate enough to have children who are ready, willing and able to give such support, it could happen that way for you. 

However, there are many things that stand between a couple and that image: Your children may not be able or willing to help, illness may affect one spouse while the other is healthy and active, or you may not have children. 

Suffice it to say that when faced with any of these situations, it is likely that you and your spouse will face aging together and that there is a chance that eventually one of you will become the primary caregiver for the other.


Finding, getting support

It can start innocuously enough: One of you develops a progressive health concern. Naturally, the person who is healthier will do a bit more than the other. This can be a slippery slope, and often, the caregiving person slowly takes on more and more until, one day, they find themselves carrying the full load for daily chores while providing ongoing care for their spouse. 

Of course, it is not always old age that turns a person from spouse to caretaker: Illness, injury or disability can make this transition unexpected and overwhelming. 

The first thing to do is get support. There are several good websites for caregivers that list local support groups or chapters, including www.wellspouse.org and the King County Caregiver Support Network website at www.kccaregiver.org. 

Don’t stop there. Inquire with your health plan, local hospital, doctor’s office, state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) or at your place of worship to see what support groups are available in your area. If you want to visit one of these groups and you don’t have a friend or family member who can stay with your spouse, these resources may be able to help with that.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Caregiving is fraught with emotional ups and downs. Be sure that both the caregiver and the person receiving the care get an opportunity for time to themselves and time to be involved in what they enjoy when they need it. Talk about how this might look while you are still healthy. 

If your introverted wife enjoys time alone now, she will likely still enjoy it if she needs care. If your husband loves to watch the game with the guys, give him the chance to do that even if he sits in a wheelchair or lies in a hospital bed. Remember, in-home care can be arranged for as little as a few hours.


Maintaining ‘couplehood’

As anyone who is in a committed long-term relationship knows, when a couple encounters any significant event or situation, changes to the relationship are bound to happen, and it takes time to find even ground again. It can be especially challenging when the changes necessitate caregiving. 

I encourage you to be stubborn and not give up on sharing those simple, but special moments together. Think about ways you may be able to keep the good times at the forefront of your mind and reinforce your “couplehood.” 

I have seen elderly couples enjoying all sorts of activities together: playing cards or board games, looking through photo albums of trips they took together, listening to music they both enjoy, watching films together, reading books to each other or listening to one on CD. 

One elderly gentleman I know who is confined to a wheelchair, dances with his wife regularly. No, it doesn’t look the same as when he was 75 and could walk, but that isn’t the point. Taking time each day to do something together can make aging as a couple and/or caring for your spouse less of a challenge and one that you face together. 

MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. Submit questions or topics by calling (206) 838-1844 or via e-mail to marla@andelcare.com.