A recent study by two University of Missouri researchers looked at the phenomena of women who become caregivers for their divorced husbands. I am one of those women. For over six years I have acted as caregiver for the man I divorced. I pay his bills, order his medications, do his grocery shopping, interact with the assisted living facility staff and much more.
When the nurses insisted he go to the emergency room for a stomach bug, they called me. I was at the ER when he got there. And, when he accidentally set himself on fire one Martin Luther King Day, I left my date at a restaurant and rushed, 50 miles back to town, to the emergency room where I stayed by his side for much of the following eight days.
I suspect my reasons for tending to the ex dont differ much from other women in similar situations. No one else stepped up to take care of him. The researchers didnt cite that reason, but I would bet its the case in many situations. Sure, I wanted to help the father of my children, and my children felt strongly that it should be my responsibility. And, in the mix somewhere, are benevolent feelings towards a man I spent over 20 years with.
But in reality, none of his relatives offered to help and our sons we're still young adults at the time. Had I not taken on this responsibility, hed be just another number in a nursing home somewhere. And, probably less healthy than he is today.
Another finding cited in the study was the observation by some women that their ex-husbands had "softened" during illness and there was less conflict. I find that to be true in my case as well. I dont want to be too cynical, but certainly it would be in his best interests to be nice to the person pushing the wheelchair and paying the bills. One day, not too long ago, the Ex called to thank me for something I had done.
I thanked him for taking the time to call, acknowledging his thoughtfulness. And I bit my tongue and didnt say what was really on my mind, "if youd been that appreciative of my efforts during the marriage, things might have been different." It would have served no purpose, so I stuffed it down. But it hints at a little resentment about the situation I find myself. Here I am, along with many other older women, caring for someone I divorced. Divorced because we didnt love them, or they cheated, or something happened that caused the dissolution of the relationship, and yet?
Its not always an easy place to be. Im only 56 and this was not in my plans. This is supposed to be a time for freedom from responsibilities; those few precious years after our children leave the nest, but before we have to start worrying about ailing parents. A time for recreating out lives, meeting new people, changing careers and starting new relationships.
It is not an easy burden to carry. People occasionally remark that I am a saint for taking care of my ex-husband. I dont snort or guffaw or cry. But I could easily do all three. Were not doing this for sainthood or even to look good. It falls in our lap, often without financial or emotional support, or any acknowledgment of the personal sacrifices we make. To say its not easy is an oversimplification.
Id suggest that the next time you talk to a caregiver, offer her a little comfort, offer to help in some way and ask how shes doing. Believe me; she probably needs a little caregiving herself.
About the author: Walker Thornton, a Virginia-based journalist and blogger, writes frequently for ThirdAge.com