This week, I’m home recovering from foot surgery. It’s the type of surgery that was easy to put off for a long time as I’d limp along (literally) and worry about intervening with a foot that at least got me where I needed to go. I finally took the plunge and now feel fortunate that I had a good surgeon, adequate health insurance coverage and, oh yes, a partner in life, my husband of 26 years. I’m very lucky that he was willing and able to drive me to the surgery and wait for it to be over, to take me home and get me settled on the couch. I’m lucky that he knows his way around the grocery store and he doesn’t mind stopping at Starbucks for me, even though his beverage of choice is diet Coke. All in all, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it’s been a good week to be married to a good person.
At mid-life, marriage takes on somewhat different qualities and functions than it may have had earlier. We aren’t usually raising young children; the urgency of our sexual desires may have waned. We’re way past the “seven-year itch”—maybe more like the 27-year! But marriages may be tested. Mid-life is also a time of increased introspection for many of us, a time when we think about what’s meaningful and how we want life to be for the rest of our lives; it may be a time for some realignment, taking last chances. Some marriages grow stronger and some fail at this time.
When I was 14 years old, my parents were divorced after several turbulent years. Within a year or so, my father remarried a younger woman and they later had my half-brother. Meanwhile, my mother dated off and on, but she never remarried, living through most of her 40’s, 50’s and 60’s as a single woman. She and I were great friends throughout my teen and young adult years and she modeled both warmth and independence, a winning combination.
As the child of divorce, I am always aware that divorce is an option and a pitfall of married life. No one seems immune, so I am always vigilant about my own marriage, half fearful that the worst will happen and sometimes thinking maybe it would be best if it did. “Till death do us part” can seem somewhat archaic and unrealistic.
Oddly, though, my own parents have rewritten their story, and mine, in late life. When my father reached 72, his second marriage broke up without much warning. And within just a couple of months, what happened was something else I did not foresee. My dad started to pursue my mom, his long-ago ex-wife.
Not long after, in 2002, my parents reconciled—30 years after they had divorced! My mother who had lived within a mile of us moved across the country to live with my father, and my little family and I had to adapt. The only child of their union, I went through many responses: bemused, touched, exasperated, concerned, and finally accepting. Now ten years later, I’m definitely accepting, and more than that, I’m relieved that my parents have each other in their old age.
Research suggests that there are many advantages to being partnered in our later years. In many cases, two people are better than one to deal with the complexities of old age. Although it’s no guarantee that things will go well, living with a supportive partner provides companionship, help, and oversight.
Spouses and significant others make up the largest group of informal family caregivers for older people with physical illness, disability, or dementing illnesses. Caregiving is stressful, and can be a drain on the well spouse’s physical and mental health. But caregiving for one’s significant other can seem like an extension of the relationship. It’s what one does. And in many couples, it is not even so clear who is the caregiver and who the care recipient. Partners simply do what they can for one another, providing reassurance, reminders and daily structure.
As social workers and nurses who work with older people know, partners often compliment one another’s skills and abilities. For instance, when my mother could no longer confidently drive, my father’s driving took on greater importance for her. He reminds her to take her medicine but she does the laundry and gets their lunch. Often these small helps can keep one another afloat, living in the community longer than would be possible were either of them to go it alone. Independence is more feasible when there is someone around to depend on.
In midlife, we don’t know what the future will bring, who might leave, or die, or stay and thrive, or take on the reluctant role of caregiver or care recipient. This week, with my foot elevated and my temper fraying, I’m very fortunate to have someone who loves me to pitch in and share my burdens.