Two and a half years ago, when they were both about 60, George and Jane Patrick of Bethesda started drawing up plans for retirement, even though it was still five years off. What their vision didn't include: her diagnosis soon after with multiple sclerosis, which requires her to use a cane and keeps her home some days because of pain and fatigue. It also didn't include the depression and irritability that he began to experience as her caretaker, said Patrick, a section chief in rehabilitation at the National Institutes of Health.
A Rockville-based support group -- one of several in the Washington area sponsored by the nonprofit Well Spouse Foundation -- helped Patrick recognize some bright spots: "Jane does more arm-holding because of balance problems," he said. "It's nice to have your spouse hold your arm."
One of the missions of the Rockville group is to encourage spouses to focus on the upsides of caring for their husbands or wives.
Group facilitator Dorothy Pocinki says meetings -- open to anyone in the area -- are generally upbeat, though they also deal with caregivers' frustrations, such as a loss of sexual intimacy. "Very little intimacy is possible with someone who is suffering," she said.
Periodic "respite weekends" -- brief trips without ill spouses -- also allow healthy spouses to re-energize. Recently, Pocinki's group went to Chestertown, Md., to sail and barbeque, she said.
Even though he's missed some group meetings and has yet to go on a weekend trip, Patrick says he finds the group comforting. "It's like having an umbrella in your car," he said. "If you have to use it, there it is."
For meeting times and locations of Well Spouse support groups, call the Rockville group (which meets the second Thursday of each month) at 301-229-0114; the Northern Virginia group (which meets the third Monday of each month) at 703-425-2430; or see www.wellspouse.org. Members range in age from 25 to 75. There is a $25 annual membership fee.
-- Samantha Ganey