When “In Sickness and in Health” becomes a terrifying burden as a loved one refuses to care for themselves

My friend Allen (not his real) name called yesterday as I was just about to start weeding the hill behind my house. He’s in his early seventies. I’d left him a message that I was juggling some interesting health news (“interesting” is a euphemism for momentarily scared shitless, but that’s another story). Allen’s a jock, a cyclist, skier, hiker, you name it. Ex-military. Seriously committed to healthy eating and exercise, as am I.

I balanced on my steep hillside, one hand holding the phone to my ear in the blessedly soft afternoon sunshine while I pulled up blackberry volunteers with the other. Allen told me a story about one couple dealing with a mismatch in their health commitments.

Photo by Harry cao on Unsplash

Some years ago Allen was a personal trainer. A woman who was in terrific shape, lovely gal, later in life, clearly very serious about her own health was a regular at his gym. She had bought a training package for her husband. Allen took the man on. It swiftly became clear that the gentleman had no interest whatsoever it learning how to exercise, eat better or take his health seriously.

Over time Allen got irritated with the man’s self-destruction and they parted ways. The alcohol abuse, bad diet and constant excuses, the refusal to do any of the work were self-defeating. When Allen spoke to his wife, she sighed.

“I love him,” she said. “I don’t want him to die before I do.”

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Increasingly, as we live longer, aging couples are faced with the extraordinary burden of having to be caretakers for partners whose sloppy habits and poor choices have left them crippled or completely disabled. There goes that retirement dream. Instead of hiking the Alps, one partner is pushing a wheelchair, or worse. The saddest part of this is that in most cases it’s largely preventable.

The original idea of “in sickness and in health,” to be fair, was written at a time when sickness was likely more fleeting, and folks didn’t gorm twenty pizzas for fun on YouTube. Obesity wasn’t on the terrifying rise, and our food choices and farm labor tended to keep us a lot healthier longer, with perhaps the exception of smoking. That is of course an oversimplification, but when you add in all the other environmental issues such as pollution, bad water, diminishing beautiful places to soothe our souls, being healthy takes on different meanings these days. However you and I can do a great deal to prevent a plethora of lifestyle illness, which, combined these other factors, can lead to a perfect storm.

Yesterday I got another telling comment on a story I just wrote about a nonagenarian who is now in the Guinness Book of World Records as a power lifter. Here is that story:

Old Ladies, Big Weights and Being a Badass in Your Nineties.
I’m not the only one. And just to prove it, I’m sharing another great story. Okay, several.

Julie C wrote this (used with her permission):

I wish I could get this into the head of my 56yo husband. He just needs to DO SOMETHING. But claims he has no time. Like I have time, working FT, two kids still at home, volunteering (as he does too). Today I got up at 5.15 and did an hour of HIIT and kickboxing. stopped when my dodgy knee crunched too much. Did the boring physio. Was my bed warm? Yep, but my grave will be cold and I don’t want to get there any earlier than I have to. Anyway, love your writing, it keeps me pushing on. (author bolded)

“I don’t have time” is ever the excuse of those who can’t be bothered to take care of the only body they have. Quite often it can mask other, larger issues. As we age it becomes a whole other topic, for age + obesity + poor lifestyle choices can lead to anything from serious hypertension, diabetes, Alzheimer’s or any combination thereof. Worse, we’re sicker younger, and that means for longer, meaning that if we have partners, we effectively jail them for life inside the bubble of our choices to be sick.

Not a good stew to be stirring particularly if your dream for retirement and beyond is to go out and play in the world.

So what happens when a partner’s health slides by their own hand?

Telling your honey, 'it's time for a diet'
Judy Lederman, 49, couldn't stand her ex-husband's constant nagging about the 80 extra pounds she was hauling around…

From the article:

When Jennifer Blair and her husband went to get a physical, she made an appointment for herself, too. Tests revealed she had sky-high cholesterol, life-threatening sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes. Her husband joined her efforts to shape up, sharing her low-carb meals. Along with her, he’s now lost more than 30 pounds.

“We used to be couch potatoes, but the weight loss has given us more energy for our couple time,” says Blair. “We’re thinking about taking a walking vacation to England.” (author bolded)

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d not be particularly chuffed if a partner willfully detonated his health. After years of working and planning for a happy and active retirement, I could end up a wet nurse for a man who CHOSE to to self-destruct.

Key word here: CHOSE. And in so choosing, pretty much ruins my life as well. You might say this sounds selfish of me, but what part of selfish is self-destruction, self-immolation which affects a partner’s dreams, your kids, your family, friends and everyone else who loves you?

That’s not selfish? If it isn’t then I struggle to understand what is. People can and do end up deeply resentful that they forfeited their so-called Golden Years to watch over a deteriorating loved one. In fact, Match.com is chock-full of dumped deteriorating once-loved ones who are in search of said wet nurse late in life. At that point, sadly, a late marriage all-too-often means that the wedding vows of “in sickness and in health” are used to lock someone in to full-time care.

Photo by Oliver Sjöström on Unsplash

Allen recently moved near his home town along the Eastern Seaboard. When old friends visit, he’s had to set house rules.

“I tell them no junk food, no alcohol. If you want to hit the local bars, you’re on you’re own,” he said. “If there are chips in the house I’ll eat them. I would rather have a big bowl of steamed broccoli.”

My bag of fresh broccoli was on the kitchen counter, awaiting steaming, as he told me this. I recently began eating a few too many salted pepitas, and those are now relegated to the back of the cupboard. Perhaps for forever. Because…

I am right now dealing with a blood pressure scare, quite likely brought on by a very strong medication I take to prevent migraines. I am the picture of what it looks like to prevent a hypertensive event, but even with that, my long history of eating disorders which resulted in a minor heart attack in my thirties, might well have set me up for issues later on. While my BP has been ridiculously low for years, it’s either that, or the Aimovig, which is known to raise BP, could be the culprit. Still, I have to track that down and manage it.

Like Allen, I am within a few years of seventy. At one point last year Allen took himself to the ER when he was feeling horrible, and it turned out he had blood clots in his lungs.

Who knew? This is a serious lifelong athlete, and now he is on a blood thinner. That is saving his life. We spoke about this too, for neither of us wants meds in our bodies. We’re vain, and we’re also determined not to become a statistic of polypharmacy. We won’t, but the other side of this, as his ER doctor friend told him,

Sometimes shit just happens.”

The aging body does endure changes as a natural part of aging. Quite often whatever insults we might have committed against our august selves in our youth, as with my eating disorders, can catch up to us much later in life. Therefore it behooves us to take even better care of the body we inhabit as we age.

I’m writing a separate article about my own minor-but-could-be-major health scare. Bottom line, at 68, as Allen underscored yesterday, no matter how hard we work, about 25–30% of our quality of life as we age is out of our hands. I like those odds, but those odds still mean, as with uber-healthy and responsible Allen, there is still the occasional wild-ass bowling ball that could slam our knees and knock us down.

To that then: Allen’s physician, as have mine, told us that had we not been in this kind of shape, we’d likely not have made it. That is the whole point. We will suffer insults. The question is whether or not we bounce back up to better manage a changing, aging body.

A healthy marriage begins with a healthy self, in all our spheres: body, mind and spirit. If we want our love life to last, this is yet another powerful message about loving ourselves enough to be able to show up for those who love us.

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