Caring for a spouse ‘in sickness’ can take a mental toll

Created date

January 24th, 2020
An older couple holds hands, one of them in bed, and the other comforting them. This scene is common among spousal caregivers.

An older couple holds hands, one of them in bed, and the other comforting them. This scene is common among spousal caregivers.

When you got married, you promised to love each other “in sickness and in health.” Now, a new study shows that the “in sickness” part may take a significant toll on the emotional health of both spouses.

Researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed data from a long-term study of over 1,000 older married couples. They found that, overall, some married men and women who had two or more chronic health conditions developed significant symptoms of depression as time wore on.

This trend was especially apparent when each spouse had different health conditions that required different goals of treatment or different types of care (for example, if a wife had diabetes and heart disease and her husband had cancer and lung disease). 

Gender differences

Wives seemed to fare a little better. When their husbands’ health needs differed from their own, they didn’t experience a greater rise in depression. But husbands whose conditions had care needs that were different from their wives’ did experience an additional rise in depression symptoms.

The researchers say that depression might be avoided or helped if spouses could find common ground. For instance, a wife dealing with high blood pressure who might need to make changes to her exercise routine could ask her husband to do the different exercises with her, even if he doesn’t need to make changes to his exercise routine. Or a husband with diabetes who does most of the cooking and has a wife with arthritis could adopt a healthier menu for both of them.

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