Published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, the study from the University of Michigan explores how divorce and remarriage affect wives who are caregivers.
More than 35 million Americans are remarried, and nearly half a million adults over age 65 remarry every year, according to researchers. At the same time, Americans are living longer, with increasing levels of chronic disease.
Carey Wexler Sherman, Ph.D., a research investigator at the U-M Institute for Social Research, interviewed 61 women who remarried later in life and were the caregivers of husbands with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Average age of the women was 66.
Sherman asked the women about their social support networks, and assessed their well-being and the amount of disagreement they experienced about caregiving decisions with family and stepfamily members.
“I was surprised at how little adult stepchildren were involved in the care of their fathers,” Sherman said.
“Even when the relationships between stepmothers and adult stepchildren were good, there were likely to be problems involving communication about who should be making medical and financial decisions. For caregivers who did not have close ties with adult stepchildren before the onset of health problems with the husband and father, it was even harder.”
According to the caregivers, adult stepchildren and other stepfamily members were much more likely than their own families and friends to offer unwanted advice, interfere or meddle, to question the caregiver’s decisions, and to say things that were inconsiderate, angry or critical, according to Sherman.
They also were more likely to let the caregiver down when she needed help.
Many of the remarried caregivers worked to avoid a sense of isolation, by turning to counselors, support groups and websites, as well as family and friends. But Sherman said it was striking how many women reported being virtually alone in their caregiving role.
“They expected and needed assistance from their husband’s children and were deeply distressed when it was not forthcoming,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that a lack of shared family history and norms likely affects the way stepfamily members cope with the demands of taking care of a loved one with dementia.”
Sherman said that caregivers are likely to experience increased burden and depression as a result.
“With so many older Americans in complex family situations, this study signals the need for greater understanding of aging stepfamilies, as well as tailored interventions that address the unique decision-making and care-related support needs of repartnered older adults,” she said.
Source: University of Michigan