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Adult day care as a transition for spousal caregivers

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Well spouses often find the absence from home of their life partner too devastating to bear. There are several ways to deal with this transition for the caregiver, including adult day care.

The sound of silence can be deafening, especially when the silence enveloping you is in the home you have shared for decades with a beloved spouse. When an elderly spouse falls ill with dementia, the well spouse becomes the default caregiver. Often, as time passes, it's necessary to involve grown children and/or paid caregivers. However, it's still the well spouse who lives with the ill spouse day in and day out.

If the well spouse rarely gets out of the house without the ill spouse, that can be an ordeal, but it is one that is often recognized. Therefore, steps should be taken to help alleviate this by hiring help or having friends or family occasionally sit with the ill spouse.

Well-spouse: preparing for a transition

What people rarely recognize is that once the ill spouse dies, the well spouse is suddenly faced with an empty home. This was brought to my attention by a gentleman who'd read a column I'd written on adult day care. He said that while having time to get things done outside of the house without worrying about his Alzheimer's stricken wife getting hurt or wandering away was a benefit of having her attend adult day care, the most striking benefit was that it helped him get used to a silent house.

The gentleman made a point of going back home after dropping his wife off at the day care center (which she enjoyed, so there was no guilt attached). Yes, sometimes he ran errands or did chores at home. But mostly he used the time to sit in his chair and get used to being in the house alone. He made a point, when he entered the home after dropping her off, of noticing that he was going home to an empty house. He made a point of being aware. He was relieved that he didn't have to have "eyes behind his head," as he put it, while he relaxed in his chair. His wife was well cared for, yes. But just as important, he was, for a time, relived of the duties of being a caregiver in his home.

From Alzheimer's caregiver to being alone

Emptiness was at once the positive and negative of the situation. It took time for him to get used to being alone and to appreciate the quiet without the worry. Eventually, he made it a point to putter around with things he couldn't do when he was caring for his wife. He renewed some interests. But most importantly, he forced himself to get used to the silent, solo life he knew he'd face in when Alzheimer's disease would take his wife's life.

After his wife died, he was grateful that he had made these steps toward adjusting to being alone. He told me it helped his transition, even though the grief of her death was just as real. He felt the move was an important part of his getting back to living his life once she was gone.

Adult day care serves many purposes, but helping a spouse get used to an empty house is one of the least known benefits. I was grateful this gentleman passed on his experience to me so that I could pass it on to other readers.