March 13, 2000 (Philadelphia) -- Women who face a serious illness, or the illness of a loved one, may often feel isolated or unable to fulfill their many roles and obligations within the family. A study published in the January 2000 issue of Social Science and Medicine examined how couples coped with serious illness. The study's authors, Laurel Northouse and nursing colleagues from the University of Michigan School of Nursing, found that both women who are seriously ill themselves, along with those who care for ailing spouses, suffer greater emotional upset and take less satisfaction in their marriages than do male patients or caregivers.
- Choose healthcare professionals who are sensitive to many women's reluctance to ask for help during the course of their own or their partners' serious illness.
- Seek as much medical information as possible, so that you don't feel in the dark about what you are facing.
- Expect to experience some degree of emotional distress. Sharing those feelings with supportive professionals, friends, or other caregivers through support groups sponsored by the Well Spouse Foundation or other organizations can help decrease a sense of isolation.
- Talk to your partner. While many women tend to avoid sharing upsetting emotions with their sick or caregiving spouses for fear of burdening them, doing so can actually bring the couple closer together emotionally, help preserve the intimate marital connection, and decrease the stress of the medical situation.
- Don't wait for others to step forward to volunteer. Make specific requests of specific people to help out in concrete ways.
- If caregiving becomes too overwhelming, approach other family members about pitching in more on a regular basis. Seek the help of professionals to come up with alternative means of taking care of a sick partner, including increasing the use of nurse's aides in the home, utilizing day treatment programs, and even considering temporary nursing home placement.
Barry Jacobs, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and family therapist, is the Associate Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Crozer-Keystone Family Practice Residency Program in Springfield, Penn., and specializes in treating families coping with medical illnesses.
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