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Blessed and troubled are the caregivers

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By Paul Prather


When singer-actress Dana Reeve died this month at 44, I wondered how much her late husband's nine-year disability contributed to her own early demise.

Reeve succumbed to lung cancer. News reports said she was a non-smoker. She had, however, nursed her husband, the actor Christopher Reeve, from the horse-riding accident in 1995 that left him a quadriplegic until his death in October 2004.

Perhaps these two things -- Dana Reeve's years of caregiving and her fatal illness -- were unrelated. No one can say for sure. Cancer remains a mysterious disease, and no one has ever determined that it can be caused by fatigue or emotional turmoil.

However, having been a round-the-clock nurse to my wife as she slowly wasted away and died, my first thought upon reading of Reeve's passing was, "The caregiving got her."

That's not such a wild leap. In February, an Associated Press wrote an unsettling article about a study of 518,240 caregivers, conducted at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania and backed by the National Institutes of Health. The study initially was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers found that a spouse's debilitating illness often hastens the death of the caregiving husband or wife. They blamed, in the summary of Associated Press reporter Jeff Donn, "stress and the loss of companionship, practical help, income and other support that can occur when a spouse gets sick."

The chief researcher, Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, told Donn, "You can die of a broken heart not just when a partner dies, but when your partner falls ill."

This particular study looked at elderly caregivers. But my experiences tell me the issues they face aren't that different from those confronting Dana Reeve. Or you. Or me.

Researchers found that older men are 4.5 percent more likely than usual to die on any given day after their wives are hospitalized, and women with sick husbands are about 3 percent more likely to die.

The risks run especially high if the spouse's disease is severely disabling -- a stroke, heart attack, pneumonia or hip fracture -- or if the sick person suffers from dementia or mental problems.

In those intensive situations, the caregiver's risk of death multiplies -- up to 58 percent higher than normal for men and 77 percent for women.

And if a sick spouse actually dies, the survivor often quickly succumbs to an accident, suicide, infection or complications from conditions such as diabetes.

Quoting Christakis again from the Associated Press: "What it means to me is that people are interconnected, and so their health is interconnected, and in really real ways, there can be a kind of spread of diseases between people."

To me, this is irrefutably true. During the five years of my wife Renee's illness, which required constant caregiving, I developed both diabetes and high blood pressure.

When I was a full-time newspaper reporter, co-workers used to rib me about being incurably upbeat in the newsroom, an environment not known for its optimists. Yet during Renee's sickness I fell into clinical depression. For roughly two years I took a prescription antidepressant. It saved what's left of my sanity.

A Christian counselor told me I actually fared better than many long-term caregivers, even those who are deeply religious. Disproportionately, he said, caregivers tend to abuse drugs or alcohol, to have extramarital affairs or to simply climb in their cars and drive away, never to be heard from again.

(Lest you worry, I'm OK now. My diabetes and hypertension are under control. I'm no longer depressed and have no need for an antidepressant.)

I always think twice before I write about the stresses of caregiving. Some of you who read this column are the sick husbands or wives being cared for; I hate to add to your pain by pointing out the toll your illness might exact on your spouse.

I'm aware of how soul-crushing it can be to lie in bed, dependent on others. It's been 10 months since Renee died, and I still cry just thinking about all she suffered.

But it's needful, I believe, to point out that an extended, debilitating illness is about as difficult for the caregiver as it is for the disabled person.

I want churches, friends, extended families and medical workers to understand that caregivers need compassion and attention as much as the visibly ill do.

And I want you caregivers to know that the terrible, conflicted emotions you feel -- empathy, loneliness, guilt, grief, fear, rage, inadequacy -- aren't sinful, but are common

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This is very true. One of the questions we ask when we are doing an initial admission accessment at the hospital is " Have you had any stress recently, a death in the family, illness or loss of a spouse?"

Donna G

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This is an interesting article Richard. I remember seeing an interview with Christopher Reeves and he stated that his doctor told him not to let his wife be his main caregiver. But even though one may not have to do much care giving (they had several workers and therapists that came in) it is still the stress that gets to you. I don't know about anyone else but I feel I am aging at the speed of light lately. :lol:


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Thank you Richard,

Really makes you think.

I got cancer in 1999, my husband was healthy,

he got lung cancer in 2002, by that time I was

healthy enough and able to take of him, now I have

a second cancer and my health is really going down



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