Uneven aging: Alone together

Though isolation is a condition we think belongs to persons who live alone, uneven aging can result in a similar sense of being shut off, even to one's partner or friends.

A temporary setback like a broken leg means hours alone, to pass slowly. In the case of a chronic condition, add empty time in waiting rooms, clinics, or labs. At home, if the abler partner has a long list of chores, the afflicted one can languish. How many crosswords can you do?

During Rachel's recovery from surgery and chemo, she sank into loneliness, but felt so rotten that she couldn't receive visitors. Feeling the edges of depression close in, she set herself up with a lap desk and began to Skype like a champ, making it clear to friends that the conversations needed to be 20 to 30 minutes.

One of my oldest friends, Marcelle, recovered from a stroke, but had to give up driving. Around that time, her ancient PC wore out. In a good news/bad news scenario, her only child, who had separated from his wife, moved in to her semi-rural cottage to care for her. She mostly needed nutritious meals and a chauffeur.

He did not, despite my requests, replace her PC. (She could afford it.)  I suggested he receive her e-mail on his account; this makeshift method was better than nothing.

When I read how social media isolate persons from real human contact, I think of her, and of my profoundly deaf father-in-law, for whom the computer was a lifeline. He contacted old work colleagues, researched family geneology, and read short articles.

The abler partner is faced with a dilemma; prod the other person to go out (and feel like a nag) or accept a more insular life within the home, decreasing the size of the world for both.

Sue's husband Carl went through a bout of colon cancer. During treatment, his energy was low, but on some days, he would feel almost his old self. She kept a 'go bag' at hand, so that when he he wanted to go to his favourite pizza joint right now, she had his supplies packed and enough cash to stop at the garage sales he loved.

She stopped inviting friends for cards, because he could not muster hours of concentration, but then realized how much he missed them. She switched to hosting "Sundowner Sundays", when the old crowd, and sometimes their children, would drop by for a Sundowner (their favourite cocktail since their Waikiki honeymoon forty years ago) or lemonade, understanding that an hour, from 4:30 to 5:30 pm. was going to be it. They enjoyed the format so much that they continued after his recovery.

Isolation is the elephant in the room; the afflicted partner might not tell the partner that he is bored and restless because that sounds ungrateful. But it's not. He is bored and restless because it is a boring, confining situation.

Kurt Vonnegut once said a fascinating thing about relationships: ultimately, most disagreements happen because there is too much weight placed on a partner. He said, (I'm paraphrasing) that in the case of endless bickering about the same thing, the partners need more community: get out there and do something.

Infirmity puts a massive extra load on any relationship, and it is the nature of love to try to step up to its exigencies. But sometimes, demand causes a claustrophobic, closed atmosphere, when what's needed is in fact an opening.

How do you open? Bring in "air": different persons, setting, things to do.

Sandy's husband spent months in their guest room, a space to which they had not paid much attention in twenty years. One day she found Paul on Wayfair, looking at bedside tables. Then and there, she ordered them, and kept going; between Wayfair and Ikea, they created a far fresher room with new linens, improved lighting, and blackout blinds.

Sandy decided they would do something "airy" every week. She took Paul to the park to watch people do T'ai Chi, and brought a simple picnic. Her daughter found found a hairdresser who made home visits, and they both got cuts. She discovered BBC radio plays that they listened to together, and ordered a Peeramid bookrest for his iPad.

If you are a wife and the abler-bodied person, pay close attention to the forming thunderheads of conflict. My university classmate Dr. Linda Waite became a noted professor and researcher in aging— what a joy to see her name attached to a recent study sponsored by the US's National Institute on Aging.

In short, the key finding (reported in the University of Chicago News) is "Wives report more conflict if their husband is in poor health; if the wife is in poor health, there doesn't seem to be any difficulty in the quality of the marriage for the husband."

Uneven aging puts a particular pressure on women partners, and therefore, requires close attention and regular self-care. That's not selfish, it's a prudent tactic that supports a healing environment.


Laura Jantek said…
You write with such understanding and thoughtfulness . Thank you
Madame Là-bas said…
I have found your Uneven Aging posts informative. They provide insight into a problem that I observed in my own parents and that I'm sure will affect my own life sometime.
Lynn L said…
I have a dear friend who has undergone three unsuccessful surgeries to fix a torn Achilles tendon, and who has been housebound for almost a year. He won't accept visitors, and his wife, who is still working full time as well taking care of her mother, is continually exhausted and getting depressed. Any ideas on how I can help? These posts are so relevant to where many of us are these days -- thank you.
Duchesse said…
Lynn L: Your friend is running a relay all by herself. In order for things to change, she has to make her depletion known to him and insist on respite care, for him, her mother, or both.

A respite worker is not a "visitor". For many persons who are laid up, a stranger is actually better than a friend, because there is no responsibility to be social.

I wonder what is keeping your friend from opening this discussion. If she can describe what's happening with her, ask for what she needs, and still acknowledging his discomfort and unhappiness, they can solve this together. He is not in a home hospice situation here. I also wonder who expects that she provide such continuous care- her, or her spouse, or did they both expect it and then she finds it has gone on so long that she can't sustain it?

If she is not accustomed to such discussions, she might benefit from a practice session with a professional- a counsellor, therapist or heath care provider.

When I worked in hospitals, I on occasion saw nurses treat men who were convalescing like three-year-olds, firmly stating what they could and could not do for them. (The best were the nuns, who took no nonsense.) I saw how fear and pride can reduce any sick person, regardless of sex, to tantrums. But I have to say the men were the worst.

It is just (unwell) human nature but sometimes a person needs a reality sandwich, especially in that state of dreary but not critical convalescence.

Kamchick said…
But if that lady expresses her need to have respite care for one or both, she may feel that she is 'being selfish'. If she were the person who was incapacitated, would her husband be up to providing continuous care without needing respite. This is where I think that relationships become difficult. Couples age together unaware of what CAN happen. Also, I think that in many relationships, one of the couple is more open to discussion and finding solutions than the other is. And dare I say that the one who is more willing to discuss is often the woman.
Duchesse said…
Kamchick: You and I are saying the same thing, essentially, that she must express herself, and I wondered what the barriers are to her doing so.

That is why I suggested she "might benefit from a practice session (ore more) with a professional. If she is stuck with that "I'm being selfish" belief, she needs reassurance that her needs count too.

Not sure couples who age together are necessarily "unaware of what can happen" if they observe both their own and their parents' generation— it is all around them unless they choose not to notice. But it's a lot easier to talk about it in theory than to face the real thing and my friends who have done long term care stints tell me they had no idea of the unceasing work.

I agree women are more open to discussion!
Perhaps women of the boomer generation, war babies and those older - far more in number than even 30 years ago, are more open and aware about this because they had the most immediate experience of the "unceasing work" caring for babies and small children.

We can hope this will change as the X and millennial dads I see now are far more engaged in the hands-on unceasing work of childcare.
Lynn L said…
I appreciate these ideas. My friend, the wife who is trying to work full time and care for both husband and mother, is a refugee from Sarajevo,Bosnia as is her mother. I am sure this plays a role in her reluctance to ask for help. I think she often feels that anything is better than her experiences during the war. I will gently suggest respite care or even some frequent home care and see what she says.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: Good point. I don't know the age of the woman to whom Lynn refers; a torn Achilles can happen at any point.
Regardless of age, it is not a good idea to shoulder long term care alone, especially the hermetic environment created when the affected person will not accept visitors (which are good for the caregiver, too.)

I have no idea why this man is like that, but many persons go into their shell when adversity hits. I have a dear colleague stricken with a debilitating illness 8 years ago. She has recovered to the extent she can live a normal life but to this day she will see none of those with whom she used to work because she says she wants us to think of her as she was.
Duchesse said…
Lynn L: Thank you for the latest comment. Culture determines so much of how we behave. She is lucky to have you for a friend, a friend who will proceed gently.

Being unwell for more than a brief bout of something changes a person enormously, and also upends relationships. Though it's been 40 years since I worked in health care, the lessons have not only stayed with me, it seems they are bubbling up now as all of us age.
LauraH said…
Beautifully expressed and much food for thought. Thank you.
Kamchick said…
Thanks for your reply...made me think. I would revise my thoughts and say that couples age together AWARE of what CAN happen, but being human tend to live in 'hope' that none of these things will happen to them. After mid seventies, when health issues inevitably tend to become more frequent, it comes down to 'being there' for each other and picking up the slack for the incapacitated person. I think that women are more tuned into picking up this slack and often carry more of the weight than they should or are able to...hence feel overwhelmed and, in the end, 'burn out'. Sometimes, men don't even notice the slack that needs to be picked up!
Liz Rice-Sosne said…
Not only is this written with deep understanding and kindness, it has a wonderful sense of empathy and it is right. A beautiful essay.

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