Women Caring for Ex-Husbands

Recently sitting in the hair salon, I was drawn into a conversation with a woman (I’ll call her “Nancy”) sitting in the chair next to me.  Nancy had traveled back to New Jersey from her home out of state in order to assist ex-her husband who was dying of a highly aggressive form of cancer.

While they shared two children in their twenties, Nancy had taken on the role of caregiver. She seemed conflicted around this role particularly since it appeared as though it had been a contentious divorce and ongoing relationship.  During the course of our discussion what I heard her say was that her motivation came from the children she and her ex shared and the desire to be perceived by them as a “good person.”

I was struck by this woman’s experience and wondered if it was a common one.  Aware that many more men and women are entering their senior years divorced, and sometimes without a partner, I believe that we will be seeing more of this phenomenon.

In fact, the US Census Bureau reports that of the aging population over 65, there are close to 3.8 million divorced men and women.  We know that illness and end-of-life issues will clearly impact singles without spouses or caregivers.

A study form the University of Missouri has provided some insight into this experience and the need to offer support, assistance with medical needs, health needs and daily living needs.  The research speaks to the unique characteristics of these relationships and the women who provide care.  Those with positive post-divorce relationships are more likely to take on these caregiving relationships.  Certainly, if there are shared children, the emotional attachment is facilitated.

A surprising outcome of the study was the report by some women that caregiving was seen as a turning point in relationships with their exes, which buffered the challenges of caregiving.  Women reported the “softening” of their ex-husbands during illness and therefore there was less conflict.

The researchers will continue to explore this phenomenon while determining the support needed for all caregivers.

~ Janet Pincu, MSW, LCSW, CALA