How does your partner adapt to MS?
The people who are partners to a person with multiple sclerosis often get overlooked. But they face many of the challenges. They experience many of the same anxieties and uncertainties that MS brings, and must learn to cope with their loved one’s physical limitations, bouts of fatigue or periods of depression. They share the worries about health, money and what the future will bring.
But as with many of life’s challenges, the changes that MS imposes can create opportunities for personal growth. Many partners say their relationship became stronger for having faced MS as a couple (Ackroyd and colleagues. J Clin Psychol Med Settings 2011;18:372-379). The challenges of a loved one’s illness can also improve how a partner communicates in the relationship, deepen their sense of compassion, help them grow spiritually, and inspire them to rethink their lives and reorder their priorities (Pakenham KI. Psychol Health Med 2007;12:190-196).
A recent study interviewed partners about their experiences living with a person with MS (Neate and colleagues. PLoS One 2019;14:e0212422). Their success as partners provides some important tips that may be helpful to others.
- Make the same changes your partner does. People with MS often make changes to their lifestyle to promote their day-to-day health, such as modifying their diet, quitting smoking, starting an exercise program or learning stress-reduction techniques. Partners who make these same adjustments can gain the same benefits, such as weight loss, being more fit and feeling better about themselves. Eating the same foods will also make grocery shopping and meal planning less of a challenge.
- Seek knowledge. This can mean learning more about MS, or exploring new things to try, such as yoga, meditation or cooking classes – activities you can do together. Some partners said that doing a bit of research about MS or lifestyle issues made them feel more actively involved. New knowledge provided a rationale for the changes they were making in their lives. And becoming more knowledgeable helped them find information that might benefit the person with MS.
- Embrace the positive. Changes can be seen to be good or bad – by you and others. Partners said that they actively sought out people who supported their choices and tended to screen out people who didn’t. For example, if a couple adopts a meat-less diet, it’ll be easier to invite like-minded people over for dinner. That emphasis on the positive extends to the person’s interactions with healthcare professionals as well. A caring, supportive neurologist or nurse can make all the difference to a couple learning to cope with MS.
- Learn to unplug. Embracing the positive also means avoiding the negative. The internet can provide unlimited information about MS – but it can also expose you to a world of unhelpful opinions, misinformation and doom-and-gloom thinking. Those kinds of toxic exposures can bring you down. You need to stay focused on your life and your goals, which may mean filtering out the noise from nay-sayers (on or off the internet).
- Live a more manageable lifestyle. Partners said that MS made them re-examine the choices they’d made in their lives. Adopting a healthier lifestyle prompted some people to examine other parts of their lives more closely. So they re-evaluated the job they were doing (‘Would I like to be doing something less stressful?’), their home (‘Do we need a big house?’ or ‘Do we need to be living downtown?’), and their work/life balance (‘Could I work from home and spend more time with the family?’). For them, MS provided an opportunity to reflect on their life and re-discover what was truly important to both partners affected by MS.
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