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Buffer or Blade: Perceived relationship closeness in couples navigating Alzheimer's

Given the paucity of support from the welfare state, the lion's share of care for American seniors with memory loss is shouldered by their spouses who tend to be older and sometimes are frail themselves. Previous research has bifurcated attention to either accounts from diagnosed individuals or carers rather than understanding the experience within a socio-relational context of sometimes half-century long relationships. The present study was a qualitative investigation of 11 community-dwelling dyads (N = 22) living in the Greater Boston Area to understand how married heterosexual couples experience Alzheimer's. They were predominately white, highly educated individuals with mild to moderate AD and their spouses. Grounded theory methodologies were used to collect, code, and analyze all narrative study data. The data from these spousal dyads reveal that most couples approached AD as a joint challenge and were committed to maintaining their prior roles and lives for as long as possible, including shared outlooks, approaches, and activities. By showing how some couples navigate AD together rather than separately, these data provide an important counter narrative to the burden-based framing of AD in our social imagination. Regardless of perceptions of relationship closeness, all dyads employed strategies to live life positively with Alzheimer's. Despite being a highly privileged sample, or an “ideal type,” these data reveal the importance of studying AD as a coupled or family event; that is, a social and relational matter, rather than simply an individual medical problem. They also highlight the importance of relationship-centered care in meeting families “where they are” in terms of existing social roles. Universalizing all AD experiences leads to an over-reliance on reductionist tropes such as “stress” and “burden” and exacerbates the very real threat to social disenfranchisement. 

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Journal of Aging Studies
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