Dear Family Advisor

I'm wracked with guilt for enjoying life again now that my husband is in a care home.

Last updated:

October 31, 2009

I recently had to place my husband, who has Alzheimer's, in a nearby care home. I could check on him every day, but I'm not sure it's a good idea. When I leave, he gets teary and begs me to move in with him. He initiates sex, but maybe because of the dementia, he no longer feels like my husband that way. And he calls me ten times a day.

We can't afford for me to live there, and honestly, I don't want to. I've returned to church and see friends now -- it's been years since I've done this. But I feel guilty for enjoying my life again when he can't. And I feel guilty because I don't want to visit him every day. It's emotionally taxing -- for both of us.

How do I handle his incessant calls and demands?

You're in a strange place. You're married, and yet you can't go where your husband is headed. As spouses, we have to face that we probably won't die at the same time. And right now, it's your job to live. "'Til death do us part" doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our own life for our spouse.

Grieving doesn't start when the heart stops beating. You've doubtless been doing a lot of the emotional work of letting go of who he used to be, and that's why you're able to go to lunch, to laugh, and smile again. That certainly doesn't mean you're a bad person, or happy about what's happening. It means you're ready for the happiness you need and deserve.

Dementia impairs the ability to make sound decisions. You have to make the decisions for the two of you, and you know what's best. If your husband were of sound mind, he would want you to live your life to its fullest. Living a healthy, full life doesn't take anything away from him. Sadly, his dementia will get worse. Your instincts are right on -- becoming his roommate would be unwise, financially and emotionally, so don't even consider it. You must continue to move forward with your life.

Here are some tips to help you love and care for your husband without moving in or seeing him every day:

Get note cards and write yourself reassuring messages. Tape them around the house and in your car and read them out loud to yourself: "Take care of you." "( your husband's name) wants you to be happy." "Smile!" "It's okay to have fun!" "Call a friend." " _ is safe, and that is love." "It's time." "Trust yourself."

Don't have sex unless you want to. Dementia can make someone overly preoccupied with sex. Follow your heart. If sex doesn't feel natural, then you don't have to participate because you're his wife. It won't necessarily bring you closer or relieve his anxiety.

Wean yourself off of the constant phone calls. These only feed his compulsion. The care home will call you if you're needed or if there's an emergency. Call him as often as you're comfortable. You can also sometimes call your favorite nurse or nursing assistant to find out how he's doing.

Divert his attention when he's demanding. Find something that comforts him (the television, music, a topic of conversation or a hobby he likes).

Keep an open mind, and cherish the memory of your husband's old self. Your husband's anxiety may diminish -- he may come to accept his new home. But also know he may get worse. So hold the memory of your healthy husband and the life you had dear to your heart instead of getting too distraught over where he is today.

Visit his care home -- on your terms. Sometimes you might not be in the mood to see your husband, but if you connect with the staff, that helps him, too. You could buy a couple of pizzas, take in cookies, ask how he's doing, suggest things he likes.

Give yourself a little pep talk. Before and after visiting, take a look at those note cards and reassure yourself, out loud, that you're a good wife. It's time to build a life of your own. Tell yourself you have a good heart and you're doing the right thing -- for him and for you. Do this on the way in and on the way out. You're still his wife, still his advocate, but you're also so much more.