The Influence of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) on Marital Relationships

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Virginia Tech

The purpose of this study was to examine the influence of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) on marital relationships. MCI refers to age-related decline in memory and other cognitive processes that do not necessarily interfere with daily activities or the maintenance of social relationships with others (Petersen et al., 1999). Using social exchange theory as the theoretical framework to guide this qualitative study, aspects of the marital relationship explored from the nonimpaired spouses’ perspective were couple interaction, intimacy, and the division of household labor.

In-depth interviews were conducted with five husbands and five wives (M age = 76.6 yrs., S.D. = 6.64). Open-ended interview questions that focus on issues specific to the marital relationship included: (a) range of activities participated in as a couple, (b) ways of showing care or affection toward one another, and (e) management of everyday life. In addition to participating in the semi-structured interviews, the spouses completed three standardized scales (e.g., Revised Memory & Behavior Problems Checklist, Zarit Burden Interview, Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression Scale). Their responses to these measures provided information about the memory and behavioral changes of the elder as it related to the outcomes for and responses of the spouse. Spouses noted both change and stability within their marriages. They expressed “mixed emotions” concerning the influence of MCI on both them as individuals and on their relationship. Husbands’ responses focused on the negative relationship outcomes (e.g., frustration, stress) associated with caring for a spouse with memory loss; however, wives reported higher levels of burden and depression on the standardized measures than did the husbands. Gender differences were found regarding how husbands and wives view their roles in context to the caregiving situation, as well as how they adapt and cope. Longitudinal research is needed to examine the changes in the dynamics of these late-life marital relationships over time.

long-term marriage, interactions, intimacy, division of household labor, social exchange theory, mild cognitive impairment