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My dad’s in the kitchen!

My dad baked his own birthday cake! Now that might not seem like big news to you, but that seems pretty amazing in our family. 

You see, my dad was a farmer. His role was all the heavy labor, the outside work, the fields and the cows. My mom, on the other hand, had the huge job of keeping the household running, everything in order and spotless, clean clothes for all and most importantly keeping everyone feed, three times per day, plus snacks!  

My observation was that Mom wasn’t really expected to be outside and help. In fact, I believe she felt she probably couldn’t do things the right way anyway. And the roles were certainly reversed, there was no way Dad was allowed in the kitchen or the laundry room. The arrangement seemed to be more than satisfactory for both of them.

But last week my dad baked his own birthday cake. Oh, don’t worry Mom was right there instructing! He certainly didn’t have the skills to do it on his own. You see, the roles haven’t really changed at all. Mom is still very much in charge of all the same things. Because her physical strength isn’t as good as it used to be. Dad is now beginning to help with the things that take a little more strength, like stirring an angel food cake for several minutes. The arrangement still seems to be satisfactory for both of them. They are evolving into a different level of caring for each other and making life work.

I’ll always remember my grandfather learning to vacuum and dust, to perfection, as Grandma sat in her recliner with all the right instructions! I’ve met several male caregivers lately who are learning how to change their traditional roles, with the help of instructions from their spouse.  I tend to be traditional, I guess, as I don’t worry as much about the wife caring for the husband, but husbands caring for wives seems to be a more difficult transition. 

Yet, the men I’ve met have very much earned my respect. They are making sure their wives are healthy, happy and safe. Their entire focus seems to be protecting their spouse. What a wonderful process to witness.  

The care of a spouse surely has its rewards, whether it is the wife caring for husband, or husband caring for wife, or a wonderful combination of each.  One advantage is that the partner who is in need of care or assistance is already comfortable with the caregiver. You know each other’s idiosyncrasies, habits and preferences. You also know each other intimately so it eases any embarrassment when dealing with private needs. You also know the home environment and what areas might be in question when it comes to safety issues.

On the down side, however, the caregiving spouse may feel odd about asking others for much needed help, fearing their loved one will be embarrassed or uncomfortable if anyone else provides care or knows that they need this care.

Spousal caregivers often feel so much stress since they also live with the person they are caring for, which doesn’t provide for any breaks physically or emotionally. “It is important that the spouse continue to do some of the activities she or he likes, whether it is singing in the church choir or going to the monthly book club meeting, so that he or she continues to socialize outside of the home and give themselves a breather,” advises Richard Schulz, Ph.D., caregiver stress expert at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It is important that, as a caregiver of a spouse, you don’t assume you can handle everything,” said Dr. Schulz. “In a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, we found that spousal caregivers who experienced mental or emotional strain were more likely to die sooner than non-caregivers. Sometimes even the most resourceful person needs to ask for help from other family members or outside professionals. The hard part is knowing when to ask.”

So how do you know if caregiving is becoming too risky for you? Examine this list and see how many apply to you:

• Missing or delaying your own doctor appointments.

• Ignoring your own health problems or symptoms.

• Not eating a healthy diet for lack of time.

• Overusing tobacco and alcohol when you feel stressed.

• Giving up exercise habits for lack of time.

• Losing sleep.

• Losing connections with friends for lack of time to socialize.

• Bottling up feelings of anger and frustration and then being surprised by angry, even violent, outbursts directed at your spouse, other family members, co-workers, even strangers.

• Feeling sad, down, depressed or hopeless.

• Loss of energy.

• Lacking interest in things that used to give you (and your spouse) pleasure.

• Feeling resentful toward your spouse.

• Blaming your spouse for the situation.

• Feeling that people ask more of you than they should.

• Feeling like caregiving has affected family relationships in a negative way

• Feeling annoyed by other family members who don’t help out or who criticize your care.

All caregivers who experience elevated levels of stress are at an increased risk for physical and emotional issues. Even if you are only experiencing two or three of these items, it is important to get help and support. In the end, it is important that as a caregiver, you maintain your own health, because if you aren’t well, you will be less able to help your spouse.

My dad seems to be having fun learning how to help with some of mom’s traditional roles. I see my mom just grinning, she’s finally getting the help she’s deserved for years! 

My grandpa learned so much from those instructions from the recliner that he was able to maintain the household on his own very successfully for many years after grandma passed. The gentlemen I have met know they need some time away, are going fishing and out to coffee with the guys on a daily basis because they’ve learned to ask for help. 

The care of a spouse absolutely has its rewards, as long as both partners pay attention to the pitfalls. I’m thinking it’s not too early to start good habits — I might even offer to cook tonight instead of my husband doing it. He’ll need to be home though to give me some good instructions!

DEB CRANNY is the executive director at Home Instead Senior Care in Brainerd.