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Spring Hill couple gives unconventional advice to caregivers

SPRING HILL — It would be one of their last days living under the same roof.

It was dinner time, and Rhonda Travland was getting supper on the table. Her husband wanted a ride to a sports bar and wanted it now. If you arrive early, you get extra poker chips. He loved poker.

Angry at having to wait, Travland's husband pried a large piece of wood off a door and swung it toward her head. She ducked.

No one was hurt, at least not physically, though her teenage daughter, who was standing nearby, would never forget.

"He could have killed you," she told her mother.

Travland's three children have harsh memories of life in Tampa with their father, who suffers from fronto-temporal dementia or early onset Alzheimer's disease.

But she got a steady stream of advice — from her conscience and from therapists — to stick it out.

For many years, she tried. Her husband was unable to work, so she cobbled together paychecks.

And then, as the violence and medical bills escalated, she wondered, "Did God bless me with these children so I could watch them live in fear?"

After tending to her first husband for 10 years, Travland helped him move into an assisted living facility and eventually filed for divorce.

'Vows have limits'

"What do we mean when we say, 'I do?' " David Travland asks.

He's Rhonda's second husband, 26 years her senior, and having the time of his life.

"We mean, 'I will love as long as you do not have sex with someone else, squander our marital assets or beat me up,' " he said. "It's a contract, and vows have limits."

Trained as a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor, David Travland met her in 2006 at a Well Spouse Association support group he facilitated. At the time, he also was struggling in his role as sole caregiver to a disabled spouse in Brooksville who was morbidly obese, unable to walk or care for herself and suffering from a variety of related illnesses.

Once a successful psychotherapist and marriage counselor, David Travland said he had become an "isolated and celibate nurse's aide."

He rode his motorcycle recklessly and fantasized about crashing.

"Death would have been all right," he said. "The state would have to take over her care."

Eventually, after his wife had required hospitalization, David insisted he could no longer provide the level of medical care she required and had her discharged to a nursing home.

She filed for divorce.

Challenging advice

Today, the Travlands — David, 68, and Rhonda, 42 — live in Spring Hill with her children. They recently founded the Caregiver Survival Institute and self-published a book, The Tough & Tender Caregiver: A Handbook for the Well Spouse. They work as consultants.

They will tell you they found themselves in situations they never imagined — "caregiver hell" — and are lucky to have survived.

Their ideas are messy — and controversial.

How does one leave a chronically ill spouse? Didn't those vows mean anything?

When a spouse is chronically ill or disabled, many caregivers watch their own lives disappear. For spousal caregivers who did not have a strong relationship before the disability, the diminished life is a lot like a prison sentence, David Travland said.

The couple share their stories openly. The book is sprinkled with details of their days as caregivers, as well as relationship theory and strategies for survival.

They encourage care-giving spouses to set boundaries to stave off depression. And they challenge comments frequently given to caregivers: Keep a journal. Hang in there. Things could be worse.

Such messages suggest there is no alternative to the status quo, David Travland said.

No topic is off-limits. An entire chapter is devoted to finding sexual intimacy — within the marriage and outside of it.

They insist they're not advising care-giving spouses to cut and run. Couples with a particularly strong marriage have more to draw upon when things shift, David Travland said.

But if the marriage contract is broken, it needs to be renegotiated, he said.

"Caring for a disabled spouse is one of the most underrated stress situations," Rhonda Travland said. People are reluctant to ask for help when they need it, and society is reluctant to offer it.

They distinguish between caregivers of terminally ill spouses and caregivers of disabled spouses.

One has a clear endpoint. The well spouse can grieve and have closure.

Still, many extended friends and family members have been unable to make peace with the decisions they made. David Travland's son is still so angry he won't allow his father to see his only grandson.

But the couple believe their former spouses are now happier, more independent and better off without them.

Without the stress of living in a house with three children and ongoing financial worries, her ex-husband is displaying less aggression and enjoying life more, Rhonda Travland said.

"We screwed up in a way," David Travland said. "We made them too dependent on us."

Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at slmarshall.sptimes@gmail.com.

To learn more

The Web site for Rhonda and David Travland is www.caregiversurvival.org. Their book, The Tough & Tender Caregiver: A Handbook for the Well Spouse, is available for $18.99 through Amazon.com or for $14.99 at their Web site, not including shipping.

Spring Hill couple gives unconventional advice to caregivers 08/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 5:05pm]

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