Over the years, I have witnessed more marriages than I can count. Most of them young couples, in love and idealistic. But I always wonder, “do they know what they are promising?” Granted, I did not really know what priesthood would ask of me when I was ordained but still the marriage vows contain some challenging realities: for better or for WORSE, in good times and in BAD, in SICKNESS and in health, until DEATH do us part. What has really touched my heart is watching many of you deal with the worse part, the bad times, particularly as it relates to sickness. And I am sure it was the good times, the healthy times, and the lively times, that motivate you to care for your spouse as they decline.
For those of you who care for a spouse with memory loss, you have a special place in my heart and prayers. The frank truth is that it is hard to care for someone who know longer recognizes you and who can test the patience of a saint. But you do it. And you do it with great affection.
The initial stage of Dementia can be very confusing. You are not sure what is going on, is my spouse just cantankerous, impatient, angry or just plain old mean? And once you know what you are dealing with, the real challenges start. As the process worsens, many caregivers, spouses, find themselves frustrated, impatient and angry. Be gentle with yourself as you adjust to a whole new reality. The roadmap through is not a straight line, there are many twists and turns, U-turns and dead ends to face. Most of all realize that the way your spouse is behaving or talking is not directed at you. They simply can no longer articulate what they feel or want. They get frustrated easily. Just commit yourself to respond with kindness, no matter how harsh the words become. It’s not about you.
There are good strategies and management tools that you can use to help slow the decline in your spouse and ways to make them feel secure and safe. But eventually, even those will stop working. What can help is to remember that the person who no longer really knows you is the same person who loved you through life, whom you shared many happy times together, overcame many challenges, and held your hand through times of uncertainty.
Also give yourself a break. Use the help that is available that can give you some respite from being a fulltime caregiver. Don’t feel guilty about that. Try to maintain your social connections even if they are not as often as you would normally have. That will be important for afterwards. And for some, a person with dementia can become more than you can handle; that is why there are Memory Care Homes that can take over when you simply cannot do it any longer, or your health is starting to decline or weaken. I certainly believe that home is the best place but that is not always possible in some cases. (For those Care Homes in SCW, we visit them weekly and bring the Eucharist, celebrate Mass monthly and give the Sacrament of the Sick.) Most of all, keep a good sense of humor about you. So often those with memory loss say the outrageous, off the wall and out of the blue things that are often humorous to the rest of us.
These are the “worst” of times. But the love that you have and the promises you made are still binding. This love takes on a different shape and requires different ways of expressing it. It is also a time of sacrificial love. The kind of love with which Jesus laid down his life for all of us. You are now being asked to lay down your life for your spouse. And when I witness that kind of love, I better understand the love God has for us.
Then comes the “Death Do Us Part” moment. Sudden death brings its own shock and disorientation but the long slow decline, especially into cognitive decline, requires a marathon runner’s dedication. And when it is over, when the “till death do us part” arrives it leaves a tremendous void and adjustments must be made as you have been a fulltime caregiver for a long time. Love yourself enough to process the loss and that will greatly assist in that adjustment process. So, avail yourself to a Grief Support Process to find the healing and strength you need.
“For as Long as You Both Shall Live”, I have said those words countless times at countless weddings. May your love for your spouse be just that, no matter what condition living takes. Afterall, we really get to see and understand what authentic love looks like and what form it takes in the worst of times, in the sickness times, and the bad times. And when you really think about it the worst of times are really the best of times since you get to care for the one who cared for you.
Fr. John B.BACK TO LIST