A life-changing detour

Armed with inborn optimism, Carolyn is accustomed to countering her husband William’s slightly more negative mindset. But the Massachusetts resident’s sunnier approach became especially valuable after William was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Spotlighting the “in sickness and in health” passage from their wedding vows, the illness has required the longtime married couple to navigate tenuous terrain that includes frequent medical appointments, evolving treatments, and days when William just plain feels awful.

“I’m cup-half-full and he’s cup-half-empty, but it’s always been like that,” says the mental health professional, who, like her husband, is in her 70s. (We’ve changed their names for privacy.) “Keeping him positive is a challenge, especially when he’s feeling terrible and can’t eat, has no energy, and wants to sleep all the time. But I’m always looking for the positive, and he’s grateful.”

Coping style is crucial

About 60% of American adults are already coping with at least one chronic condition — such as cancer, heart or kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease, among others. And millions of couples face a serious new diagnosis each year, says Dr. Suzanne Salamon, clinical chief of gerontology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. But determining how to best support your partner after such a diagnosis can prove just as unmooring as the health crisis itself.

“There’s not just one right way to do this,” Dr. Salamon says. “Everyone handles it differently.”

Research underscores how fundamental a couple’s relationship is to their ability to endure one partner’s daunting diagnosis. A 2021 review published in Frontiers in Psychology tapped 30 years of research on more than 2,800 couples affected by severe physical illnesses. It highlighted how so-called dyadic coping — how partners communicate and support each other through adversity — is a dynamic process where one partner’s ability to cope depends, at least in part, on the other’s.

To that end, Dr. Salamon suggests making frank but reassuring statements in the hours and days after the diagnosis — even while giving space to let the news sink in.

“Tell them, ‘I want us to be on the same page, have the same goals, and be able to be there for each other,’” Dr. Salamon says. “It can be really tough, because one day they may feel they can manage, and the next day they may be terrified.”

Supportive strategies

Carolyn and Dr. Salamon also recommend these ways to support your partner.

Maintain routines. If Saturdays have always been movie night, keep the tradition going. “Having life go on normally as much as possible is definitely helpful when it feels like the world has just turned upside down,” Dr. Salamon says.

Get informed. Your partner’s primary care doctor can be a rich source of information about the diagnosis and connect you with specialists who may shed light on the latest treatments, Dr. Salamon says. You can also visit reputable websites, such as those of the CDC (www.cdc.gov) or National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov).

Attend doctor’s visits. Don’t stay in the waiting room. Ask questions during appointments, and write down responses. “I’ve kept running notes on everything to sort things out, both for us and the doctors,” Carolyn says. “It’s been helpful to be able to look back on them.”

Tweak your home. Install grab bars in bathrooms, and obtain assistive devices such as a walker or wheelchair to lighten your caregiving load. “Your partner may be adamant they don’t need the help, but tell them you’re just giving this a try,” Dr. Salamon says.

Get affairs in order. Even if you’re expecting your partner to fully recover, you should plan for the worst, Dr. Salamon says. Smooth the path forward by updating documents such as power of attorney, medical proxy, and wills.

Seek and accept help. Ask a social worker or your local Agency on Aging to steer you toward in-home services. And if loved ones ask what you need, don’t balk. “I’m used to being able to do everything, so it’s hard to let others help,” Carolyn says. “But even if someone visits with your partner while you go out for a walk, those sorts of things help too.”

Take time for yourself. Whether it’s a mani-pedi, solo weekend, or some other form of respite, self-care is essential when so much focus is on your partner’s needs. “My gardening helps,” Carolyn says. “It’s what I do to clear my head. And I always make sure I have some kind of flowers in the house to perk us up.”

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? (Genesis 18:24) And the Lord replied, “If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, I will spare the entire city for their sake.” (Genesis 18:26)

And be sure to say, ‘Look, your servant Jacob is right behind us.’” Jacob thought, “I will try to appease him by sending gifts ahead of me. When I see him in person, perhaps he will be friendly to me.” (Genesis 32:20)
to say to you: ‘Please forgive your brothers for the great wrong they did to you—for their sin in treating you so cruelly.’ So we, the servants of the God of your father, beg you to forgive our sin.” When Joseph received the message, he broke down and wept. (Genesis 50:17)

“Forgive my sin, just this once, and plead with the Lord your God to take away this death from me.” (Exodus 10:17)
Pay close attention to him, and obey his instructions. Do not rebel against him, for he is my representative, and he will not forgive your rebellion. (Exodus 23:21)

Moses Intercedes for Israel The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a terrible sin, but I will go back up to the Lord on the mountain. Perhaps I will be able to obtain forgiveness for your sin.” (Exodus 32:30) So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a terrible sin these people have committed. They have made gods of gold for themselves. (Exodus 32:31) But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, erase my name from the record you have written!” (Exodus 32:32)

The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6) I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected— even children in the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:7)

And he said, “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession.” (Exodus 34:9)
just as he does with the bull offered as a sin offering for the high priest. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:20) Then he must burn all the goat’s fat on the altar, just as he does with the peace offering. Through this process, the priest will purify the leader from his sin, making him right with the Lord, and he will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:26)

Then he must remove all the goat’s fat, just as he does with the fat of the peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar, and it will be a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:31) Then he must remove all the sheep’s fat, just as he does with the fat of a sheep presented as a peace offering. He will burn the fat on the altar on top of the special gifts presented to the Lord. Through this process, the priest will purify the people from their sin, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:35)

The priest will then prepare the second bird as a burnt offering, following all the procedures that have been prescribed. Through this process the priest will purify you from your sin, making you right with the Lord, and you will be forgiven. (Leviticus 5:10) Through this process, the priest will purify those who are guilty of any of these sins, making them right with the Lord, and they will be forgiven. The rest of the flour will belong to the priest, just as with the grain offering.” (Leviticus 5:13)

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