One month after her husband-to-be proposed to Dr. Diana Denholm, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. She married him, and for the next 11 years until his death she was his primary caregiver as he suffered through surgery, chemo, and congestive heart failure, followed by a heart transplant, skin cancer, a choking disorder, Parkinson’s, and many more dire conditions — ranging from gout to osteoarthritis — too numerous to name here. Upon hearing this story, is it so wrong to feel sympathy for the wife?
Now working as a medical psychotherapist, Dr. Denholm has become a pioneering thought leader in the field of caregivers’ health. In a new book, The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook (Hunter House Publishers, December 2011, ISBN: 9780897936057), Dr. Denholm draws from her own experiences and interviews with six real-life caregiving wives. She shares strategies, inspiration, and stories of success designed to help women struggling with the multiple challenges of being a caregiver to a husband or partner with a serious long-term illness.
And there are many such women — more than 30 million women are caregivers for an ill loved one. When that dying loved one is your husband or partner, the day-to-day matters of life get to be a challenge: your role in their care, your self-care, your ongoing lives, household management, sleep, sex, changes and strains on your marriages, and current and future finances, to name just a few.
Although there’s a lot of information and help available for those “final days” and the grieving afterward, this is the rare book that offers practical written instructions for making life and marriage work during the long months and years wives face as a caregiver.
Dr. Denholm’s approach is refreshingly realistic and practical. It’s not written from a rah-rah cheerleader’s perspective. She doesn’t try to tell her readers to be upbeat and positive. On the contrary — she advises them to acknowledge and embrace all of their emotions, including difficult ones such as anger, guilt, annoyance, grief, stress, and resentment. And she doesn’t shy away from hot-button topics, nor does she pretend that it’s going to be easy to tell him he shouldn’t drive anymore, or that you need to discuss funeral arrangements, or that you’d like to go away with friends for the weekend. Instead, she offers readers creative ideas and lots of practical tools wives can use to deal with the most common issues women face when their husbands suffer from a protracted illness.
Specifically, she presents a six-step process to help women problem solve with their husbands. It’s a model she developed and has used successfully with her therapy clients. It helps them prioritize their “issues” — in other words, figure out which topics are best left unsaid or shared only with a close friend, and which ones need to be worked out one-on-one with the husband. It gives them a toolkit of communication tips and techniques to make “the talk” easier. And it enables them to learn a method for coming to “Understandings” with their husbands on everything from in-law interference to cleaning his ostomy bag.
There’s a whole section of the book devoted to the big C — in this case not cancer, but codependency. Dr. Denholm helps wives take an honest look at whether their actions are keeping the husband weak or are in fact appropriate to his real needs and abilities. And she shows how she and others have navigated around the most common obstacles, including driving, eating, sex, hygiene, and financial and legal matters. Readers also learn how to bring more balance, fun, and free time into their life as caregiving wife.
Although the intended audience for this book is wives, Denholm’s ultimate aim is to help husbands and wives work through the hardships of long-term illness so they can regain their love, respect, and compassion for each other. Yes, caregiving can destroy lives and marriages, but it can also be a cathartic driver of change and growth. That’s her big message.
Dr. Denholm believes two partners can and should both take responsibility for keeping the marriage healthy, even if the husband may be dying. Her approach teaches women “compassionate empowerment.” She says it is possible to have a healthy marriage with a husband who is gravely ill. When the caregiving wife is ready to be honest with herself and her husband, Dr. Denholm’s book will give her the tools, tips, and structure to do it.