Marilou Fowler saw the man, and said, “I do.” In 1995, after a three-year courtship, she was married to paralyzed veteran David Fowler. The couple lives near Houston, and David is president of the Texas Chapter Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans). He’s been a wheelchair user since the mid ’80s.
More than a loving wife, Marilou is one of the estimated 54 million Americans who provide unpaid care to an adult family member or friend.
“The hardest thing about being a caregiver is seeing the person I care for sick,” said Marilou. “Another thing that’s hard—to recognize the signs that I’m getting burned out.”
More than two-thirds of caregivers are women, according to the National Alliance for Caregivers. About 45 percent are age 18 to 49. More than half are married, and nearly 75 percent also work outside the home. More than half say they experience medium to high levels of stress as a result of the demands of caregiving. Although about 40 percent of caregivers say they had no choice, Marilou is happy with hers.
“I always loved helping people, and after I met my husband and we were married it just seemed natural,” she said. Still, she admits it’s difficult sometimes to always be giving care to the one you love.
As a result of the efforts of such groups as Paralyzed Veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) started and has expanded many services to the caregivers of veterans with catastrophic disabilities.
“Yes, the VA is a help for me,” Marilou said. “However, if they could provide respite care at home instead of as an in-patient it would be easier. I don't like my husband going in the hospital for anything. However, it’s good to know that there is a place for my husband to go if he does get sick.”
The National Alliance for Caregiving reported that 17 percent of all recipients of caregivers’ help are veterans. Nearly 96 percent of their caregivers are women—70 percent are caring for their spouses or partners. Caregivers to veterans are typically younger than caregivers of others.
Marilou offered some advice to fellow caregivers of loved ones.
“Allow each other space,” she said. “It’s good to be apart at times, even if it’s only for a few hours.”
She also had words about caregivers for others: “We do this because we want to, not just because we have to.”
There’s a reason Marilou is happy with her choice to be a caregiver to a veteran with catastrophic disabilities. “It’s the satisfaction of knowing that my husband is healthy and able to participate in life’s activities.”
Patrick McCallister is a reporter in Florida and frequent contributor to PN Magazine.