Widows searching for senior men partners often ask: “What if I fall in love and then he gets sick? I nursed my husband through his long, final illness. How could I possibly do that again?”
I’ve thought an awful lot about this, because I too was a caretaker to my husband until his death. We were married 30 years. But there are many women who have enjoyed only a few years with new partners, and nevertheless opt to see them through serious and even fatal illnesses. On the other hand, I know two women whose circumstance caused them to make decisions NOT to stick around.
The moment Stephen and Mimi met they felt they’d been struck by lightning. In mere weeks they were making plans to marry. Their luxury honeymoon was a gift from their adult children, who were thrilled to see their widowed parents partnered once more.
Four months into the marriage Stephen began having bouts of fatigue and dizziness. He felt weak. His vision was blurry. Medical testing revealed a degenerative disease for which there is no cure. The prognosis was grim. In a few years Stephen would need 24 /7 nursing care.
Mimi had cared for her first husband throughout four years of terrible illness. For a long time after his death Mimi had shied away from new relationships, and she had been attracted to Stephen partly because he had seemed so healthy.
Mimi wrote to me, “I cannot do this again. Louis was my partner for 32 years, but this man — ? I barely know him.” She left Stephen, and the leaving was not easy. He raged bitterly. But his daughter took charge of his care with a remarkable lack of resentment. She seemed to understand Mimi’s conflict and her motives.
When an older woman has been a long-term caregiver for a dying husband, memories of such an experience can be searing. Some years ago Agnes, my neighbor, married her podiatrist. The two were in their late sixties and both were widowed. They seemed quite happy for a year or so; then an illness incapacitated him and she abruptly walked out. Well, not so abruptly. She took time to visit him in the hospital and, peering through a forest of infusions, tubes, and wires, made her announcement to him there.
I reacted with anger toward this woman, and I still disagree with her decision. But after nursing my own husband through a ravaging illness, and after talking to friends like Mimi, I have some perspective on her choice. Agnes had been a devoted caregiver during a long and intense period of her life — almost 15 years. She regarded her remaining years as precious and didn’t want to spend them with a man she had married for companionship, not dependency.
WHAT’S YOUR CAREGIVER QUOTIENT?
I have asked myself more than once: could I leave a man who was about to need me in fundamental and important ways? If I had shared at least several contented years with such a man, I absolutely could not and would not (I hinted at this in an earlier post). If the span of our love was only a matter of months? I would stay, but it’s impossible to know if I’d do so without rancor and regret. Like Mimi and Agnes, I know that caring for someone you’ve loved for decades is worlds away from nursing someone new.
Being well into the second half of our lives changes the way we feel about lots of things, including men and relationships. We’re choosing more carefully. No complainers, no misers, no compulsives, no brutes, no sloths, and no one with a (known) serious illness.
But there’s this, too: we can be the ones who become ill. Before we get all huffy about not wanting to be caregivers, we must remember that we may be the ones who need to be taken care of. How does it feel that our guys should be able to opt out, too?