Tough Talk from a Caregiving Wife

Aging Today, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

Tough Talk from a Caregiving Wife


Medical psychotherapist Diana Denholm spent 11 years caregiving for her husband who had a series of severe conditions, from a heart transplant to kidney failure. From an early age, Denholm watched her mother care for her father, who also had a severe heart condition and multiple related illnesses. Although that experience informed her life, it was Denholm's surprising lack of preparation for the role of caregiving- after years of training as a therapist- that spurred her to write The Caregiving Wife's Handbook (Alameda, Calif: Hunter House, 2012).

The book lays out the often brutal realities of caregiving with few filters, includes interviews with caregiver wives and offers a practical, step-by-step method for caregivers to follow in caring for a spouse. Denholm's book is primarily a tool for keeping one's wits and marriage together during the caregiving process, but it's also a useful primer for all present and future caregivers. Aging Today recently spoke with Denholm to discuss her pragmatic approach to caregiving.

Aging Today: Why did you write this book?

Diana Denholm: My husband was diagnosed with colon cancer a month after he asked me to marry him. Following surgery and chemo, after five years he was deemed 'cured.' Then he developed cardiomyopathy and congestive heart failure. He was placed on transplant lists, and after declining severely for four more years, received a heart transplant. Following the transplant, a variety of body systems began to fail due to the antirejection medications and he needed extensive dialysis for kidney failure. He had osteoarthritis, gout, chronic urinary tract infections, a poorly functioning colon, diverticulosis and diverticular bleeds, hernias, skin cancers, depression, a sleep disorder, a choking disorder, freefloating blood clots and Parkinson's disease. Eventually he decided he'd had enough, and went off dialysis. He knew he would die within 5 to K) days, and that's what happened.

With all my experience in medical psychotherapy, I was not prepared: I had to blaze my own trail. I wrote the book to help others, to help them get through with a semblance of sanity or self. Survival is the key for caregivers- some commit suicide.

AT: You wrote the book for the benefit of women caring for their husbands, but what is your experience with men caring for women?

DD: There are different challenges for men. Women are more nurturer-caregivers biologically. Men approach illness as something to fix. That's good because they may see caregiving as a separate task, and can get away from it mentally more easily. That's bad because they can't fix it. This makes them feel like failures and may lead to depression. Whatever the reason, the divorce rates are much higher when a wife is sick.

Some caregivers become objects of abuse, some become abusers. That's the whole point of the book: None of this has to happen. Typically, caregiving destroys people and marriages, but your life and marriage do not have to be over- if you have the skills.

AT: Many of the women you interviewed complained because their husbands wouldn't take even minimal care of themselves while they were still able to. …

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