Michael J. Fox appeared recently on CBS Mornings and opened up about the impact his Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis has had on his life. During the conversation, Michael revealed that though actress Tracy Pollan, to whom he’s been married for 35 years, upheld her marriage vows of remaining by his side in sickness and in health, he said he would’ve understood if she decided to leave.
"We knew the bus was coming and we knew it was going to hit, but we didn't know how far away it was or how fast it was going,” he said. "At any time she would have been forgiven to say, 'I'm just gonna step out.' But, she didn't do that.”
It’s not the first time Michael has spoken about his diagnosis, which he received back in 1991 when he was just 29 years old. Over the years, he’s been the subject of many interviews and advocacy initiatives to call attention to Parkinson’s. Earlier this year, Apple TV+ released a documentary called Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which showed an in-depth look at his life and chronicled his daily routine as a father and husband living with Parkinson’s.
While he’s been very open about his diagnosis, the revelation about a willingness to forgive Tracy had she decided to walk out is a pretty big one. And certainly an honest one. But their situation is incredibly unique and part of me wonders just how much more manageable his diagnosis is for the couple due to their financial privilege and access to substantial resources – which isn’t the case for most families.
When it comes to caregiving, women are no strangers to rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done. Whether care is being provided to children, aging parents, or in Tracy’s case, a spouse, statistics show women are the primary caregivers in any given home.
According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, more than 25 million women – almost one in seven – provide care to family members or friends. And they spend an average of 24 hours a week providing care.
“The economic value of this work is staggering,” the report says. “Family caregiving was recently estimated to be worth $470 billion. Research also indicates that family caregivers help their loved ones recover more quickly and avoid or delay institutional care.”
In Michael’s case, he hasn’t had to face institutional care and says he’s still able to live in his home. This is one of the many benefits of being wealthy in the face of a diagnosis like Parkinson’s. Over the years, his conditions have worsened and progressed, but being able to afford a care team means he can age in place.
Back in May, Michael opened up about breaking several bones in recent years as a direct result of his diagnosis.
“I broke this shoulder — had it replaced. I broke this elbow. I broke this hand. I had an infection that almost cost me this finger. I broke my face. I broke this humerus,” he said, pointing out each break during an interview with Variety.
Because of his symptoms and how prone he is to falling and breaking a bone, Michael requires constant, round the clock care, which he receives in his Upper East Side home.
“I have aides around me quite a bit of the time in case I fall, and that lack of privacy is hard to deal with,” he said. “I lost family members, I lost my dog, I lost freedom, I lost health. I hesitate to use the term ‘depression,’ because I’m not qualified to diagnose myself, but all the signs were there.”
Though it’s unclear just how long Michael has had a dedicated team of aides, with his diagnosis spanning almost their entire marriage, it’s likely that Tracy has been his primary caregiver at times throughout their marriage. And though it’s a labour of love, the report points out that it can take a physical and emotional toll on a woman’s health, exacerbating pre-existing health conditions or creating new health issues entirely.
25% of women with family caregiving responsibilities are more likely to report fair to poor health compared with 17% of women who do not have caregiving responsibilities. And women who spend nine or more hours a week caring for an ill spouse are twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease. Compared to non-caregivers, women who spent 36 or more hours per week caring for a disabled spouse were nearly six times more likely to experience depressive or anxious symptoms.
The benefits of having access to resources in the face of a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis are immense. You have the option of staying in your home, being able to have a team of aides, and as an added bonus, the odds of your spouse staying by your side are more in your favour.
But this is just not the case for your average person. This isn’t to shade or blame Michael and Tracy for having the wealth they do. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to spend the money they’ve accumulated than on making Michael as comfortable as possible as his disease progresses. I, too, would see to it that my money went to providing the absolute best care possible for my partner.
More than anything, it’s just important to put this into context. I can’t imagine how many overworked, underpaid, frustrated women there are out there who are on the verge of throwing in the towel over their caregiving duties, whether to parents, spouses or children. And when they see an article like this, it must be difficult to digest that there are some wives who are sticking it out with their husbands and looking great while doing it.
But we should remember that women like Tracy are an anomaly. And unlike the estimated 24 million family caregivers who run the risk of putting their mental and physical health at stake, in addition to the financial strain that comes with caregiving, Tracy has the resources to offload some of the effects that having a partner with a devastating diagnosis and moreover, being a caregiver for that spouse, hopefully makes it easier to swallow. So perhaps this can be a reminder that caregiving is not prioritised in our communities and that with the caregiving population continuing to grow, we may all need to participate in finding solutions to alleviate the strain that this has and will have on more and more families.