Caregiving shows up differently for each family. Often it appears out of nowhere. Sometimes it’s temporary, but frequently it hits families hard and lasts for a very long time. It’s a journey that rocks worlds; steals self-esteem; creates loneliness and frustration and is full of more surprises than Christmas morning. It takes you on a labyrinth of winding roads and emotional twists and turns. If you are a caregiver, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. If caregiving has not called upon you, no doubt one day it will. After all, there are currently 65 million family caregivers in America; the odds tell us that it’s bound to show up one day.
Few people are ever prepared for this journey. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to think about it; or maybe it’s because we can’t imagine having one more thing to do; so we wait and quietly we wonder if it’s going to happen to us. I can tell you from personal experience and years of helping family caregivers manage the journey; even if you think you are prepared, you never really understand what is happening until you are in “it,” until you are fully emerged in this life-changing journey. Certainly, you should have the proper legal work in place. You need to make a house safe for an elderly loved one and you need to have some idea about the financial resources available. If you have these things in place, then you are in the smallest minority of people who have actually thought about becoming a caregiver.
The caregiver’s journey challenges each person’s physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual constitution. It is without a doubt one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have, but if you enter into it without your eyes wide open, it has the potential to make a mess of your world. So let’s explore what this journey is like and what you can do to make some changes or what you need to do to prepare.
Physical Challenges: There is the obvious assistance that caregivers often need to perform; help with dressing, bathing, eating, moving from bed to chair, turning someone in bed and these types of activities can, in and of themselves be physically debilitating. However, the real detriment comes when caregivers forget about self care – caring for one’s own physicality on a daily basis. There is never enough time to do all the things one needs to do in a day and therefore, the person who suffers is always the caregiver. When you put your personal well being on the back burner, it is a dangerous tight rope to walk. Caregivers who do this end up taking approximately ten years off their lives! And here’s the interesting thing: When I ask someone why he/she would do this, the answer is always the same. “I don’t have time to take care of me.” You don’t have time NOT to take care of you. If you don’t put yourself at the top of the hierarchy of needs, you are headed for big trouble. If you don’t matter enough to yourself, please stop and think about the person you are caring for. Who will care for that person if you end up in the hospital? I’ve said this before and I’m going to keep saying it – SELF CARE is NOT optional! Please do not sacrifice yourself for the sake of another.
Emotional: Caregiving is an emotional roller coaster ride. Chances are that you are watching physical and cognitive changes in someone who you are very close to and that wreaks havoc on your heart. Couple that with your own personal stress, worries, sadness and frustration and caregiving becomes a sea of emotions. Part of engaging in self care is learning ways to manage your emotions. There are so many ways to do this, but the truth is that you have to make a decision to actually do it. You can read books on this subject. You can seek wise counsel. You can get advice lots of different places, but if you don’t actually DO IT, you are wasting your time. Your body will reflect what is happening for you emotionally and when you are out of balance, your body will scream at you. Practice emotional self care each and every day. Here’s a little hint: Never, ever stuff your feelings. Our feelings are there for a reason. I teach people how to honor and embrace their emotions, because when we learn to do this, we just feel better.
Intellectual: Yes, caregiving challenges you intellectually, because you must now become wise about how to communicate with medical personnel. You have to learn new ways to communicate with your loved one, and this isn’t always easy. You will undoubtedly be dealing with attorneys at one point or another and you will also need to learn the ins and outs of Medicare. These things are not easy because it’s like taking a crash course in college to get a degree. The best things you can do are to ask a lot of questions and take notes. Be confident when you show up for appointments or when you are talking to someone on the phone. Even if you aren’t confident, practice speaking like you are. Knowledge is power and in the beginning you might have to research and educate yourself. Ask questions and seek help from experts.
Spirituality: Caregiving challenges us to look inward. At some point in this journey you will be forced to get quiet and ask the big questions. You will be forced to question your beliefs and this is good. Each person’s spirituality is different, and therefore, each individual must engage in a daily practice of some form of spirituality. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be taking a walk outside and listening. It might be a daily five-minute meditation. It could be a conversation with God. Maybe it’s reading from a spiritual book every day or maybe it’s a visit to your religious community. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it. What matters is that you continue to engage in a daily practice that brings peace to your soul.
Americans are struggling with the caregiving journey. We have never been taught what to do. Most of us never believed that caregiving might last for years. Many people are living in denial about the effects that caregiving will have on their lives and therefore do nothing. It’s hard to wrap your head around this subject. I get that, but I also know for sure that we are being asked to step up and find new ways to care for our loved ones and that forces us to examine our lives differently. How will the caregiving journey affect you?
By Cindy Laverty