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6 ways to support a spouse who is seriously ill 

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Being a caregiver can be stressful for both you and your loved one. Learn how to be there for them while also tending to your own health.

“In sickness and in health.” It’s a classic part of marriage vows. But it takes on a much deeper meaning when your spouse has a serious illness. Often, the caregiving duties fall on the healthy person.  

Research shows that people who are caregivers for an older spouse or unmarried partner can spend six-plus hours a day providing care.1 Caregiving can include many types of tasks. You might help your spouse manage their medications, cook meals and do laundry, help them shower and get dressed, go with them to medical appointments, and more.2 

Caring for a sick spouse can be rewarding. But it can also be overwhelming. Here are six ways you can support them through a serious illness and keep yourself healthy too. 

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Tip #1: Stay in tune with their emotions 

When one spouse has a serious health issue, they just need the other person more. That’s especially true of daily care. This can take some getting used to for both partners.  

“As a spouse, you’re a unique person in the patient’s life, and when you start to take on a caregiver role, it requires a renegotiation of that relationship,” says Christopher Valentine, MD. He’s a family physician and Optum medical director in Draper, Utah. 

Sometimes, this change in roles goes smoothly. “But in other cases, it’s much more challenging,” Dr. Valentine says. For example, a sick spouse may experience cognitive and behavioral health changes such as anxiety, depression or memory problems. 

Your spouse’s illness may shift the balance in your relationship. It can cause them to feel powerless and more reliant on you, points out Dr. Valentine.  

For example, some people may feel uncomfortable with their spouse having to help them with things like getting dressed or using the bathroom. They may lash out and direct their frustration and anger at the caregiver. 

This can be hard for the caregiver to not take personally. But it’s important to try to understand what the sick spouse is going through, says Dr. Valentine. They are experiencing a sort of grieving process in the loss of their independence. They may also feel guilt about being a burden. This takes time to process in a healthy way.  

You may want to check in regularly and ask how your sick spouse is feeling emotionally. 

Sometimes, this may mean they’ll want a break from talking about their illness. They want to maintain the "non-caregiver" part of their relationship with you.

Tip #2: Establish a routine 

A serious illness can become the main focus of daily life. Creating a normal routine can help the sick person feel like they have some control.  

Whenever possible, allow your sick spouse to carry on with the tasks they’re still able to do. This can include:  

  • Paying bills 
  • Preparing a meal for themselves 
  • Writing out a grocery list  
  • Walking the dog 

Stay consistent with regular activities. For example, if you typically have movie night every Wednesday, don’t change it to another day. Keep it on Wednesdays. 

Fun activities can keep your spouse engaged in the moment, rather than worrying about the future. They can also lift their spirits and help you feel closer. 

Tip #3: Go with them to the doctor 

This is a key way to support your sick spouse. It’s a great way to provide moral support. But it also gives you a chance to take notes while talking with the provider. You can also bring up any new health issues you may have noticed. 

“It’s going to be critical for the caregiver to keep a log of questions and concerns so they can be prepared to ask the doctor at visits,” says Dr. Valentine. “This is important because it’s easy to forget details when you’re going for weeks or months between visits and going from specialist to specialist.”  

If your spouse has a primary care doctor and multiple specialists, you may have to keep them connected about your spouse’s condition, notes Dr. Valentine. Working within the same clinic or system, such as Optum, leads to more consistent communication.  

But “the caregiver sometimes has to play a critical role in making sure we’re keeping that network of communication consistent,” explains Dr. Valentine. 

You and your spouse might also ask their doctor about palliative care. This is specialized medical treatment for anyone living with a serious illness.3 The goal is to focus time and energy on the patient’s quality of life instead of on treatments that are no longer effective. This can include:4

  • Providing pain relief
  • Managing symptoms
  • Supporting emotional and spiritual needs
  • Offering care techniques like deep breathing and meditation that improve a patient's comfort

Palliative care can be helpful at any stage of diagnosis, and it can be given alongside the regular care your spouse is receiving.

Your spouse’s Optum doctor is an important part of their care team. Did you know they can refer your spouse to a specialist too? Find an Optum doctor

Tip #4: Honor their wishes 

It’s important to understand how your spouse wants to be cared for, especially with end-of-life decisions. This is referred to as advance care planning.5 

“No one really wants to think about these things because they’re often painful topics, but it’s never too soon to have a clear conversation about their wishes,” says Dr. Valentine.  

Many people choose to put their preferences for medical care in writing. This is done by completing legal documents called advance directives.5, 6 The two most common types:  

  • Living will. This tells doctors how someone wants to be treated if they’re unable to make their own decisions about emergency medical treatment.  
  • Durable power of attorney for health care. This names a health care proxy. That’s someone who can make medical decisions for your spouse if they can’t communicate them. 

Advance care planning can be stressful. You can lean on your spouse’s doctor or specialist to get the ball rolling with all the documents.  

Tip #5: Take care of yourself 

The long-term stress of being a caregiver can lead to burnout.6 This can affect your well-being.  

That’s why self-care is so important. If you can’t leave your spouse alone, see if a friend or loved one can sit with them for a few hours. This will allow you to meet up with a pal for coffee. Or you could go to a hair appointment or yoga class. Or you may simply want to take a nap.  

“Look at caring for an ill spouse as a marathon rather than a sprint,” says Dr. Valentine. “Caregivers need to take time for themselves and not wait until they’re sacrificing their own mental health and well-being. If the caregiver is low on their own reserves, they can’t be there for their spouse.” 

Tip #6: Ask for extra help 

Another way to avoid burnout is finding an extra pair of hands (or several). That can mean relying on family members or friends to help drive your spouse, do errands or even cook the occasional dinner.  

Or call your local state or county’s office on aging. These government offices have resources, such as volunteers, a list of agencies or respite care services, where you can get part-time help.2, 8 Check your state or local county website for the right place.  

It’s a good idea to talk to your primary care doctor too. Optum doctors understand that having a serious illness and caring for a loved one can both be stressful. Rest assured that they are ready to listen to your worries and provide solutions to help you.

They can recommend specialists, such as therapists or social workers, if you need someone objective to talk to. Or other types of resources that will make your life easier.  

Remember, your Optum doctors are always on your side. They’ll have your loved one’s health in mind. And yours, too.  


  1. U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. Celebrating National Family Caregivers Month with BLS Data. Published November 30, 2023. Accessed January 26, 2024. 
  2. National Institute on Aging. Getting started with caregiving. Last reviewed October 12, 2023. Accessed January 26, 2024. 
  3. National Institute on Aging. What are palliative care and hospice care? Last reviewed May 14, 2021. Accessed January 26, 2024. 
  4. Mayo Clinic. Palliative care. Last updated June 6, 2023. Accessed January 26, 2024. 
  5. National Institute on Aging. Advance care planning: advance directives for health care. Last reviewed October 31, 2022. Accessed January 26, 2024. 
  6. Medicare.gov. Your Medicare coverage: advance care planning. Accessed January 10, 2024. 
  7. American Heart Association. What is caregiver burnout? Published 2021. Accessed January 26, 2024. 
  8. National Institute on Aging. What is respite care? Last updated October 12, 2023. Accessed March 8, 2024.  

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