Organization, advocacy, and emotional support are all part of the equation when taking care of an ailing spouse.
Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan are using a comedy special as well as the #HowWeCare campaign to talk about caregiving for a spouse. Photo courtesy of #HowWeCare
Taking care of a spouse with a serious medical condition is no laughing matter.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan has discovered that firsthand.
A year and a half ago, Gaffigan was abruptly thrust into that caregiver role when his wife, Jeannie, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The tumor was benign, but it was the size of an apple and it was strategically located. One of her doctors told People magazine last year that it was basically compressing her brain stem.
The growth required a nine-hour surgery to remove. Complications afterward required Jeannie Gaffigan to undergo a tracheotomy as well as have a feeding tube inserted.
Definitely a difficult time for the patient.
But also a tough assignment for a caregiver. Especially when the couple has five children living at home.
Gaffigan said he learned that logistics and organization are more important than even emotional support and advocacy in these kinds of situations.
“The logistics were way more complicated than I thought they would be,” Gaffigan told Healthline.
Gaffigan and his wife have teamed up with the campaign #HowWeCare to share their experiences and help other caregivers.
Gaffigan has also injected some of this past year’s journey into his new comedy special, “Noble Ape.”
He said the special was done at the insistence of his wife, who is the comedian’s co-writer and producer.
“Jeannie wanted to get this experience out there,” Gaffigan said.
A surreal time
Gaffigan there was “a stillness” in their house when his wife got her diagnosis.
“It’s just a surreal moment,” he said.
Gaffigan said he tends to be calm in serious situations, not so much in day-to-day activities.
He gets upset in traffic, but can handle life’s big moments.
This one threw him for a bit of a loop.
“You just try to grab onto trying to find an actionable plan,” he said. “I remember that being an overriding emotion.”
Besides dealing with the overwhelming medical aspect of the brain tumor, the Gaffigans had a house to run.
“I think my wife did 90 percent of everything,” Gaffigan explained. “There was this complete recalibration.”
One of the first things Gaffigan did was ask for help, something he says all caregivers should do.
He flew in his wife’s mother as well as several of her eight siblings. They also got assistance from the siblings who live in the New York area. Gaffigan said they were all invaluable.
One of their chief tasks was taking care of the children.
“We wanted to provide continuity and normalcy for our children, so their worlds weren’t turned upside down,” he said. “We immediately went into this plan of keeping home life as typical as it could be.”
A big part of that was making sure the kids were dropped off and picked up at school.
“You can get someone to pick kids up from school,” Gaffigan said, “but having it be a familiar face is worth a lot.”
All this allowed Gaffigan to spend time at the hospital.
“This system saw that the kids were covered and my wife had an advocate at the hospital,” he said.
Gaffigan said it’s important to be specific when asking for help.
A lasagna is fine, but perhaps picking up the dry cleaning might be more useful.
“I discovered people do want to help,” he said.
Support, advocacy, and organization
Gaffigan said the advocate role is an important one.
He was the collector of information between his wife and the medical professionals.
He also coordinated the advocacy role when others were at the hospital in his stead, instructing them what information they needed from doctors on any given day.
Gaffigan added that another part of being a caregiver is emotional support.
Patients with serious medical conditions will go through low points and he says caregivers need to listen to them and support them.
“The morale thing is a very difficult position because sometimes the task of a caregiver is to hear someone vent or express frustration,” he said.
He noted his wife really wanted to see their children while she was in the hospital.
Gaffigan had to balance that desire with the prospect of their young children freaking out at seeing their mother in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of her.
As important and challenging as the emotional quotient is for caregivers, the organizational side can be just as crucial.
“There is an insane amount of logistics you have to balance and navigate,” said Gaffigan.
Besides dealing with the children, there are doctor appointments to schedule, household chores to be done, equipment to deal with, and visitors to greet.
“Organization is really key,” he noted.
He noted caregiving is more than just having a second job.
“It’s not as simple as I have to do this in addition to my job or instead of my job,” he said. “There are a lot of elements that go into it.”
Looking to the future
The Gaffigans are settling into their new life.
Gaffigan said his wife is now “80 percent of the Jeannie” that he has known throughout their marriage.
“But her 80 percent is like my 120 percent,” he said.
They’re focusing on their work for the #HowWeCare campaign as well as the “Noble Ape” comedy special.
Gaffigan said the comedy show has been cathartic, describing it as an “emotional liver” to help both of them process what they’ve been through.
He said there’s material in the show that seems to hit home with a lot of the crowd.
“Stand-up comedy is very much a conversation and there’s an authenticity that is appealing,” he explained. “It was fascinating to see how much of the material was universal and how much it resonated.”
Gaffigan says it’s been an “honor” to take care of his wife during her surgery and her recovery.
“There is something about being a caretaker that has a certain dignity and selflessness to it. It’s an opportunity for options to define who we are,” he said. “Some of it was a testament to how generous my wife has been to me. I had an opportunity to display that kind of commitment, and I am grateful for that.”