The following excerpted from Strokeland: My Husband’s Midlife Brainstorm and Its Ambivalent Aftermath (2021), written after the author’s husband suffered a stroke in 2006 at the age of 45.
I was surprised when I looked around the room of the stroke caregiver support group and realized that 80 percent of the members were women. Where were the men? Weren’t women having strokes, too?
Yes, they are — even more of them, actually. According to the Harvard Heart Letter, each year 425,000 women have a stroke — 55,000 more strokes than men have. But in the aphasia classes, the stroke support groups, even in the rehab centers, you see far more female care partners than male ones.
Why? Simple. Most men — especially younger men — are uninterested in being caretakers. They want a spouse who is firing on all cylinders. Thus, they are far more likely to divorce their chronically ill or disabled spouses than are women. In fact, a 2009 study published in the journal Cancer supplied these depressing statistics: A married woman diagnosed with a serious disease is six times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar diagnosis; among study participants, the divorce rate was 21 percent for seriously ill women and 3 percent for seriously ill men.
One of my coworkers was a man with young children who had divorced his brain-damaged wife, partly for financial reasons, and remarried. No one thought any worse of him for it; indeed, he was encouraged to do so by all of his family and most of hers, and his new wife was quickly welcomed into the fold.
I also thought of my two friends whose mothers had Alzheimer’s disease, both of whose fathers started dating other women while their wives were still alive. When these fathers asked their adult children about it, most of the offspring had readily agreed to the arrangement. Would they have been equally understanding if it had been their mother who wanted to date while their father was alive?
A year after Rob’s stroke, when I gently raised the question of divorce with a few friends and family members, I met with strong resistance. Even the friend who had divorced his brain damaged wife asked me why I was considering divorce so soon.
Men, especially those under 70, are not expected to devote their lives to sick or disabled wives. Instead, in our culture, they are expected and even encouraged to move on. Few people question their need or right to do so.
The wife of a member of Rob’s stroke class divorced him soon after his stroke, and if she is mentioned at all, it is with great scorn — both by other group members and their wives.
Women are expected to transform, even sacrifice, their lives for a chronically ill or disabled spouse. Men are not, which explains why they are so rarely found in caretaking groups. My friend with the brain-damaged wife was told by nearly everyone that he deserved love, companionship, and intimacy — a full life. Only my therapist ever said that to me.
I don’t often see Rob with his stroke friends, so it was a revelation to watch them together at a MnCAN (Minnesota Connect Aphasia Now) meeting in early 2020. In most group settings, Rob hangs back and keeps quiet. The rapid flow of conversation isn’t easy for him with his halting speech, so after a few attempts, he clams up.
Not so at this MnCAN meeting, where he lit up the very instant we entered the room, animatedly greeting each person in turn. The day’s ice breaker involved sharing old photos of yourself or your pets, and 69-year-old Bruce cracked up the room with a photo of himself at 19, clad only in boxers, his hair styled in an impressive afro.
In fact, laughter rang out repeatedly during the 90-minute meeting, as photos of dogs and 1970s teenagers circled the room. The formerly busy lives of these stroke survivors may have telescoped down into weekly meetings in a nursing- home basement, yet they seemed happy and even relieved to be there. They obviously shared a comfort level with each other that doesn’t exist for them with civilians. I had rarely seen Rob look so relaxed.
Once the snacks arrived, the meeting dissolved briefly into chaos (“Where’s the popcorn?” “Pass that picture!”) before speech therapy leader Carly gently moved the distractible stroke folks back on track.
Next, Mary Lou, an 80-year-old woman, asked each member, “What’s your favorite Thanksgiving tradition?” Listening to their answers, which unspooled in fits and starts, agonizing pauses between the words, was excruciating. But only to me, I reminded myself. The stroke folks were fine, prompting their own speech by drawing numbers in the air or tracing letters on the tabletop, looking to one another for clues, getting running starts by using similar words. From Julie, triumphantly: “Kelsey…daughter…me…pie… tradition.” From Rob: “Our girls come home.”
A younger woman named Stacy stood out because of her discouragement. “It’s hard, dammit, dammit, dammit,” she said. “I love to cook but it’s hard.” And a bit later: “I can’t say it!”
But everyone else in the group remained positive, and took turns encouraging Stacy to stay upbeat as well. Carly told me later that Rob was a group leader — a person others looked up to and admired for his persistent efforts to improve his speech over more than a dozen years.
It was good for me to see him this way again — as a relaxed, popular leader — after seeing him as limited for so long.
Lynette Lamb (she/her) spent a 40-year journalism career working mostly as a magazine editor. She lives with her husband in a Minneapolis. Strokeland is available for purchase at lynettelamb.com. Find an unrelated story by Lamb about domestic violence red flags she learned about during her first marriage.