Saturday, August 14, 2010

Illness as Catalyst?

Sorry for the short absence. Richard and I were helping my mother transition into an assisted living facility and sort out her medical needs. About six months after my father's death she hit the "alone" wall. Not loneliness, which can be tempered by social activity - but alone-ness. She became afraid.

She and my father were not very compatible. She experienced his questions about her activities as attempts to control her, and he experienced her wordless, stone-faced responses as either not having heard his question or as not having done the deed he was asking her about. So he would ask again, and again, with increasing impatience -- especially after he became physically disabled during the last two years of his life. And she would get stonier and stonier. You can see the endless, disappointing (to me) loop.

At the six month post-death point, it wasn't that she missed him or had regrets that disturbed her quietude, it was that she started becoming afraid of being alone. The night-time what-ifs intruded more and more into her awake time. What if I fall? What if I can't reach my cell phone? What if my alert necklace doesn't work? What if there's a hurricane? What if something happens and there's no one there?

So, we helped her move into an assisted living, where she is much more tranquil.

As we helped her settle in, I wondered: Must illness exacerbate the destructive behavioral and emotional patterns couples used during their healthier years? Does illness need to be the final stage on which the partners enact the same old script that locked them into battle or silence in healthier days? Or can illness be the catalyst that bulldozes the destructive relationship loops and spirals and clears a path to more nurturing interactions?

What is your experience? Can illness change relationship patterns for the better; or does illness just exacerbate the pre-existing negative behaviors?


Patrick@Caregivingly Yours said...

You raise an interesting question.I once said,"A long term spousal caregiver paints a canvas where the years spent caring dwarf the years spent sharing. ..." It would depend when illness starts, in our story Multiple Sclerosis entered out lives before the wear and tear of a relationship could ever develop.

Caregivingly Yours, Patrick

Mo said...

My parents had a bad marriage, riddled with alcoholism, infidelity and mental illness on my father's part, and the death of a child. When my father developed colon cancer and Mother could no longer care him, he went into a nursing home. He became a mean, resentful man and turned us all away. It was easy...we didn't like him anyway. Any kindness we tried to show him was met with anger. He shut himself off to everyone. The only communication was his constant question asking if the next Thursday was Thanksgiving. He asked that for months. He died on Thanksgiving.

Barbara K. said...

Thanks for your comments Patrick & Mo. I guess there are as many responses to illness as their are people with illness and partners who take care of them. Illness does not necessarily turn meanness into kindness; and years spent being ill or caring for an ill person can wear a person's spirit down. And illness can also elicit competencies and loving-kindness.