Sunday, April 6, 2014

Caregiving Your Marriage--Rosalyn Carter

I began this blog years ago because I was in a new, wonderfully romantic relationship and then a great marriage when we began to deal with cancer. I had had cancer years before but it hadn’t effected me the way that having a partner with cancer did.

This was a hard won relationship and while I was worried about John’s diagnosis it was the lack of concern for couples and their relationships that got me writing “Love in the Time of Cancer.” Everyone had ideas about how to get a body to survive colon cancer but no one—not a doctor, nurse, or oncologist—was interested in helping to ensure that the marriage would have equally good health.

Now, years later, I’ve been writing, speaking and teaching about couples and cancer care for a long time, and I no longer blush when I say, “swallow”. But I still try to read everything I can find about caregiving. So how humbling it was this week to pick up one of the first (and best) books on how to be a good caregiver and find a whole chapter called, “Maintaining Your Marriage.”

The book is, “Helping Yourself Help Others” by Rosalynn Carter. Yes, she is former first lady and wife of President Jimmy Carter. Her book was published in 1994—long before anyone was talking about the Boomer Bump or caregiving support groups, or “navigation”. But in a sense it’s no surprise that she was so far ahead of the curve. You may also remember that Rosalynn Carter chose to focus her term in office as first lady on the diagnosis, care and treatment of people with serious mental illness. (To recall the seriousness of bringing a public focus to serious mental illness you must remember that Jackie Kennedy’s focus was on beautifying the White House and Lady Bird Johnson used her national resources to highlight gardening.)

In her book, Carter writes from personal experience as a family caregiver and she also highlights all that she learned in her work before and after The White House. The Table of Contents lists sections that address: isolation, burnout, family dynamics, dealing with doctors and the chapter on maintaining your marriage.

In that chapter she directly addresses the harm to “intimate relations” and a couple’s physical relationship and while she does not specifically answer the, “Can I swallow?” question that I asked professionals she doesn’t not hide behind the “be sure to cuddle” advice that is the coward’s fall back for a couple that really wants answers.

Carter talks about what may be the hardest step of all: Giving each other breathing room—allowing others into the hard won intimacy of a good marriage to lessen the emotional strain of cancer.

Rosalyn Carter’s book from 1994 is the perfect partner for the more recent and also excellent book about being a caregiving spouse: Gail Sheehy’s “Passages for Caregivers.”

We will all need these books sooner or later so buy yours now. Because as Rosalynn Carter said so wisely in 1993:

“There are only four kinds of people in the world:
*Those who have been caregivers
*Those who are currently caregivers
*Those who will be caregivers
*Those will need caregivers.”

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