Last week, I wrote about how lucky we are when we have someone who loves us and helps us cope with our serious health concern. But there’s a flip side too: what if the caregiver not only isn’t equipped to help us, but can’t cope themselves? Certainly, there are instances where a spouse of someone with MS or Alzheimer’s or cancer says, “I can’t handle this any longer.” If they want out, does that make them a terrible person? It sure is heartbreaking on many levels. But maybe it doesn’t have to come to such a breakup.

I recently spoke with a medical expert and an experienced caregiver about Alzheimer’s disease. As our population ages, more people will be affected, not just as patients, but as family members and friends. Finding coping strategies is essential. You can imagine - or maybe you know personally - how taxing it can be to care for someone with Alzheimer’s. This is not to say it’s much less so when your loved one has another serious illness.

I recall when my mother was in the latter stages of colon cancer. It had spread to her liver. She was 77. My Dad was 78 and still active as a practicing attorney. One day, things were particularly tough. I took him out to breakfast. I said, “Dad, you know, you are a patient too. You have to take some breaks, accept help, and keep yourself strong and healthy. Because if you get sick or really down, you won’t be any good to Mom.” He listened. It was a big deal for me to preach to my Dad. But he did take the advice. He resumed his regular golf game with his pals, he kept working. He accepted help from agencies and paid professionals. He sought some counseling for himself.

My mother died a few months later. He was very sad after 55 years of marriage and the long illness. But he moved on. Eventually, he remarried. Unfortunately, that woman became sick after about four years - pancreatic cancer - and became debilitated very fast. My Dad had been through this before and remained strong and on a fairly even keel. He had learned how to take care of himself and make the relationship, even with the burden of illness, a part of his life but not all of it.

After I wrote about my wife and some other spouses last week who have been so devoted to us, I got to thinking about how hard it is for them. And if some cannot stay in the relationship, that doesn’t mean they were not people of good character. It just shows how destructive chronic, serious illness can be.

What has happened to relationships in your life when illness has become burdensome? I’d love to hear your point of view, and what you think of the caregiver who walks out some of the time or has to call it quits altogether.

–Andrew