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Caring for a disabled spouse can have serious consequences

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Many people decide not to buy long-term care insurance because they feel that they can count on their spouse or children to care for them in their old age if they are no longer to do it themselves. However, the toll on family caregivers can be great, and possibly fatal.

A 2014 survey reported that spouses experience even more stress when caring for a husband or wife than children do. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey found that while 80 percent of caregivers said that it was a positive experience, some reported experiencing frustration, stress and anger.

While caregiving responsibilities may begin with things as simple as helping with household chores or driving someone to the doctor, they can progress to dispensing medication and helping with everyday personal care.

The gap between the number of people who think they will need long-term care in their senior years (20 percent) and those who actually do (70 percent) is significant.

The AP-NORC survey found that spousal caregivers reported more stress than children who cared for parents. Women bear the brunt of most of this care, both for parents and spouses. This is in part because they tend to outlive men.

However, the toll on female caregivers' health can be serious. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, female caregivers are less likely to have preventative health services such as mammograms. As many as a quarter have health problems such as high blood pressure related to their caregiving. A particularly troubling statistic involves heart health. It's been found that women who spend at least nine hours a week caring for a spouse are twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease.

Most spouses take their vows of caring for one another "through sickness and health" very seriously. However, as one woman who spent years caring for her husband after he developed Parkinson's syndrome and dementia put it, eventually, "I couldn't handle him anymore….He was as helpless as a baby."

If you are counting on family members to care for you if you become incapacitated instead of getting a long-term care insurance policy, consider these findings. Your spouse and children will likely be there to support you if you need them, but relying on them to administer medication and assistance with daily care may be asking too much. In fact, it may be endangering their mental and physical health.

Source: CBS News, "More stressful to care for spouse than parent, poll shows" accessed Feb. 17, 2015

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