Navigating the Transition from Partner to Carer

Becoming a carer for your partner can be sudden and provide a big challenge to your relationship. Kia Handley and The Sugar Doctor talk about how to navigate shifting dynamics in your relationship when one partner requires an additional level of care due to illness, accident, or disability.

[Original recording on ABC website here]

You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let’s Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

When news came through of  Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash recently, I saw lots of people in the following days lamenting just how short life is, how you never know what’s around the corner. And I guess in that cliché way its totally true. To not die wondering, and to live each day to its limit is a great thing to live by. But its not just death that can rattle your life plans. Illness, injury, it can completely change the path that you, that your entire family is on, and when we’re talking about love, that can mean going from partner to carer in the blink of an eye.

So how do you navigate this? Tara Whitewood is a Relationship Coach with The Sugar Doctor, regular guest here for you on ABC Newcastle Mornings, Good morning!

Tara: Good morning Kia

Some of those stories that we were just hearing, you know, they’re really heart wrenching. This is a really hard thing for anyone to go through.

I think so, it's heart moving, heart wrenching , and also really moving, the time that you spend with a partner regardless of your circumstance is precious. And sometimes it takes one of these life events to really bring that into focus.

Is it normal to transition from partner to carer?

Kia: Is it sort of a natural progression that if something happens to your partner that you do take on that role?

Not always… but lets first talk about too, the way that we kind of operate in our world as though hard things are unlucky, or that they’re unexpected. It reeks a little bit to me of privilege, and of magical thinking. You know, if we pretend it won’t happen or if we… just do all the right things, you know if we eat well and we exercise and whatever, we'll…

Kia; lead long happy lives...

Tara: You know I just really feel like we live in a complicated world. We live in these fragile bodies, and the expectation that everything is going to be easy or fine, really only sets us up for disappointment. Statistically, the chances are very high that you will encounter some kind of chronic illness or pain, or disability. Whether it’s you know,  a mental illness ,whether it’s physical illness. In your life…. So looking at, at the moment, the statistics say that;

  • 45% of Australians will experience mental health conditions during their lifetime
  • 1 in 5 Australians have some form of disability, and then that percentage increases with age, as we’re aging in our bodies,
  • And the other one that was really interesting for me actually was 35/9 % of Australia’s 8.9 million households include someone with a disability, so now you’re looking rather than at individuals you’re looking at, you know, at households…

So a third of our households include someone with a disability! The likelihood that we’re going to encounter the dynamic of this partnership hand-in-hand with carers, is really high!

Is it a Couple Dynamic? Or a Family Dynamic?

Kia: And as John was saying there, it does effect the whole family. We might think of it as the Significant Other becoming the primary carer, but even if you are caring for your mum as an adult, or your parent, or a sibling, or transitioning from partner to carer, the whole family does change, that dynamic does change

Tara: Sure! Sure! And that’s both what people see as the challenge, but it’s also the solution, the solution is inherent in that. When we look at the problem or the challenge of disability or illness as belonging to the person who has that disability or illness, then it’s a really short sighted way to approach life. When we look at it as being ; hey this is something, you know, it’s ONE other factor in this household that we need to look at as a team. Whether it’s as a partnership or a family or as a broader community, that we’re going to work with. Like WE’RE going to include this dynamic in our lives, and WE’RE going to make it easier and smoother for all of us, and it’s just a part of our new relationship dynamic.

What Beautiful Moments Come From the Transition of Partner to Carer?

Kia:– Blanche D’Alpuget , the wife of late former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, said it was a really intimate time. It was a time they said was quite special that they had to share. What are some of the beautiful moments that can come from being in this situation?

Tara;  I think it’s a real shortcut to cutting through the crap that often comes in a relationship, because you just can’t. You don’t have time for the fluff!

Kia; There’s no time for that!

Tara: You don’t have time. You need to get to “how are we going to get through this.” Whether it’s looking at domestic logistics, whether it’s looking at your social lives, and your lifestyles. I think some of the really beautiful things that happen…. And they don’t always happen, I mean let’s be clear, sometimes people just …

Kia: And not everyone will…

Tara: just suffer… and struggle, and they’re not even really surviving.

Kia: Not one size fits all in this situation.

Tara: Exactly right, and it depends on your support networks and your circumstances and all of those things.

What Shifts in Your Relationship Paradigm?

One of the beautiful things that can happen is a relationship will shift from the paradigm that we live in right now. That is, that your value is in how beautiful you are, or how much are you doing, how much are you producing, how successful are you, how much money are you making, all that kind of rubbish. And it really shifts to “what are the beautiful qualities that we share” and “what are the beautiful moments that we can celebrate between us” without having to have all the other noise around it. So it is the quiet moments when you are together and you’re having a laugh, through pain

Kia: Well you probably end up spending more time together

Tara: Yeah I think so, and I think time is…you need to be more present in that time as well. You need to be attuned I guess to a partner, both carer and the person who is ill, or has a disability. The dynamic, the power dynamic, shifts so it’s important to be attuned to that. And it’s important to have times when you’re just friends or you’re just a couple without having the focus always on illness.

How Do You Define the Changes in Relationship Roles?

Kia: Yeah, let’s talk about that. Because it does go from an intimate relationship and maybe things change everywhere from physically, in a bedroom setting, to then the emotional needs as well. To who is providing what. So how do we navigate that change, when it does happen usually quite quickly

Tara: They’re really heavily intertwined. I know Cath Mahoney talks about that a lot in her series that you mentioned before, that you really can’t separate the role of carer from friend, or the role of carer from partner, because as humans we’re complex so there aren’t you know…

Kia: “Now I’m going to wear this hat”

Tara: It’s not “now I’m going to be your mother, and then in ten minutes I’m going to be your friend”. You know? They’re all intertwined. So the way to do that I think is to focus on… ask me that question again?

Kia: laughs, so how do we navigate that change?

What to DO When You Become a Carer

1. Educate Yourself.

Tara: The first thing to do as a partner and a carer is to educate yourself. Don’t rely on your partner to tell you all of the things that you need to know – go and read books, join a support group, make sure that you are learning in tandem with your partner. Because for someone who is experiencing a big change in their life, or even who has lived with it for a lifetime, it’s particularly exhausting to have to explain that over and over again to everyone in your life. Educate yourself.

2. Build Community