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So, you have lived with your partner for what seems like forever. Together you have taken on the world, travelled, maybe raised children, maintained a house and forged careers.

Then you get old. Next thing you know, things that used to be easy are now difficult. One of you might be living with a chronic disease that impacts on your ability to do things the way you used to. Your children (if you have them) nag you about ‘downsizing’. And somewhere in the back of your mind is a little voice that says it is worried what will happen if one of you, half of the team, needs care.

This scenario is one played out day after day across the country as couples face the decision of what to do when one of them needs support.

Frequently, such decisions have to be made in a hurry, from the artificial environment of a hospital bed and following a health event. For others, the need to make changes to living and lifestyle arrangements creeps up on them over time until one day it becomes urgent. Fundamental to the concerns of all couples is the question of what will happen if one of them needs care.

Aged care options for couples

In Australia, aged care services are provided in a variety of settings ranging from the family home to retirement villages and into residential aged care facilities.

Most services accessed by today’s generation of older Australians are subsidised by the government with a whole raft of reforms during the past couple of years providing increased choice to people as they age, particularly about how they receive their community-based aged care services.

Once a person requires a certain level of care, it is usually suggested they move into residential aged care. For most people, such a suggestion is one that fills them with fear and dread. Fear of a loss of independence, a loss of self and the realisation that their life will change forever is common and if your life partner is still alive, what about them?

Better quality of life for couples staying together in aged care

It is well documented that maintaining social connectedness as a person ages significantly improves their quality of life. Similarly, couples who are forced to live apart because of health issues experience higher levels of stress and distress than those couples who stay together.

I know how distressing this situation can be for couples – I see it every day in my work at Seasons. This is why we actively work with couples and their families to ensure they stay together as they age. The importance of a couple staying together cannot be underestimated from a social perspective but also from a health perspective. Quality of life is better for couples who can stay together as they age.

It doesn’t matter to us if only one of the couple needs support or care. In fact, I think that is exactly as it should be. Couples at Seasons stay together in their own apartment, living the way they always have with their own space and privacy. Care services are discreet and respectful of the way that the couple wants to live, working with the couple to make sure they both receive the support they need.

Our experience is that when couples stay together they are generally happier and if one member of the couple requires care, their health improves. Mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety reduce. For the partner not requiring care, they are able to go back to being the spouse, providing the care they want to and leaving the rest to the onsite care team. Their health also improves. Couples are also able to develop new friendships together and independently, regardless of their individual care needs. Social connectedness improves as does their quality of life.

Couples who want to stay together ought to be able to do so. It is time for a conversation in this country about how we approach the needs of not just individuals as they age, but couples. If you have been with someone for the better part of 50 years, your need to be by their side doesn’t diminish because you are ageing. The health and social benefits of such an approach are difficult to dispute.

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Tracey Silvester
Tracey Silvester is Executive Manager of Envigor and has more than 25 years’ experience in health and aged care services. Tracey is committed to ensuring that our elders are able to exercise their right to choose how they live their lives regardless of their ability or function. Tracey is a Registered Nurse and has a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Health Management. She is also an Associate Fellow of the Australian College of Health Service Management and a surveyor with the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards.