Wendy Pearson, President, Caregivers’ Social Network
I’m afraid to try anything new. What if I make a commitment,
only to get yanked away…again?
I can certainly relate, as there were countless times when I cancelled plans with friends at the last minute. This is a common problem for those who care for others. It does not happen overnight. It begins slowly with showing up late, not being emotionally present, and last-minute cancellations. It is usually around this time that a friend confronts you about it. So instead of cancelling, we hesitate to accept or decline invitations to avoid disappointing our friends. And then the invitations stop.
It is easy to dismiss social activities as something frivolous that can be sacrificed for the greater good of caring for a loved one. I know because that is what I did.
It was only later, unfortunately, after my mother passed away, that I became aware of the long-term results of my actions. So before you write off personal enjoyment as one of the many casualties of caregiving, consider that more is at stake here than just a good time.
The lack of a break affects the quality of care you provide. Mental, physical and emotional exhaustion create an environment ripe for mistakes and accidents. When you’re tired, it is easy to become confused with foggy thinking and inattentive when someone may need your assistance. Keeping track of medication and assisting a loved one with self-care tasks require you to be mentally focused and physically fit. Imagine a nurse working 18-hour days with no break, and the potential for mistakes in distributing medication, assisting with bathing, and being available in a crisis. Each time you say no to a break, you set yourself and your loved one up for an accident.
Your loved one needs a break too…from you. I’m sure you’re wonderful (:>), but there are times when your loved one wants to be alone, or at least have someone different to talk to for a change of pace. Spending extended periods of time alone with the same person can become exhausting, even when you love each other. This is especially true for those who may be limited physically from leaving the home or care facility. Even when your loved one needs 24-hour assistance, the change in personnel provides her a break from the norm. These breaks not only help to alleviate strain in relationships, they also help you appreciate one another more when you are together.
You begin to lose a sense of who you are outside of your role as caregiver. Spending time with friends and doing things you love will remind you that you are not just an extension of your loved one. You matter. You have your own hopes, dreams, and plans, and you have a right to pursue them. When you make a habit of deprioritizing your desires, that habit will not disappear when you’re no longer a caregiver. In fact, this may be why many of us experience an identity crisis after caregiving duties end. It could also be the reason some become serial caregivers: they can no longer see themselves outside of their role as a caregiver. There is nothing wrong with caring for another once your original caregiving duties have ended, of course, but just make sure that you are doing so because it is truly what you want to do. Reconsider becoming a caregiver again if you are doing so in order to feel needed, to regain a sense of purpose, or because you see no other options for yourself.
Practice makes perfect, unfortunately. The sad truth is that even after I lost my mother, reconnecting with friends was not easy, and in some cases, not possible. I had missed too much. But even more troubling, I found that the practice of saying “no” for so long and that hesitancy to commit followed me for years. It was as if I was still leaving my calendar open in case my mother needed me.
What Can You Do Today?
While it is easy to find yourself in this situation, I’d like to share some steps that you can take today to get to a better place.
- Be candid with your friends about your feelings and your circumstances. Be honest and tell them what you want.
- Ask them to include you as much as possible because you need them.
- Ask them to understand (and not feel irritated) when you are late, have to leave early, or have to cancel.
- Tell them that you love them, miss them, and really want to spend time with them.
Good friends will understand and accommodate you. Hold on and nurture these relationships because you need them to maintain your identity (and sanity).
2. Remember to be a good friend in return. Set aside time, perhaps at the end of the day, when your loved one has gone to sleep, to touch base with your friends. The emotional connection of sharing, laughing, and discussing what is on your mind is so valuable. Doing so will allow your friends to share their lives with you as well. You can make a Skype date and share a cup of tea or a glass of wine together. If your friend lives close by, invite her over for a late movie night to catch up.
3. Secure coverage. Secure family and friends to cover for you to allow you to take a much-needed break. The more individuals you can involve, the better your chances will be of ensuring coverage. If you are having difficulty finding a family member for support, consider hiring a professional caregiver. Even if you have family and friends able to assist, consider developing a relationship with a professional caregiver for times when family and friends are not available.
4. Keep a calendar. I know you are rolling your eyes because the calendar is one of the most important tools in managing a person’s care. However, imagine the pick-me-up you will feel when you see that little something on your calendar that is a treat rather than a treatment or a doctor’s appointment. Keeping a calendar also helps you see how little time you are spending on yourself to help you avoid feeling guilty when you do. The calendar will help you determine when you need (and deserve) a break.
5. Actively seek opportunities to try something new. You cannot wait for invitations to get the break you need. I challenge you to choose an activity for the coming weekend, and schedule it. Do not focus on finding the “perfect” activity. Just find something interesting and add it to your calendar and intend to go. Then find an activity or accept an invitation for an event two weeks away, and a month later, etc. The goal here is to begin to change your thoughts and behavior about taking time out for yourself. As you follow through (and not cancel), you will become more comfortable making commitments, hopefully have a great time, and receive a much-deserved break.
6. Involve your loved one when feasible. It helps both of you to have something positive on the horizon. Consider scheduling a standing movie day each month with friends and family. Take a class together online, attend a lecture or concert, or take a drive to watch the leaves change colors. Schedule these activities so that you are able to plan ahead for them (pack medications, etc.), and to prepare your loved one in advance as needed.
7. Practice saying “yes”. This probably sounds a bit like the Jim Carrey movie “Yes Man,” where he commits to say “yes” to everything offered to him. While the movie is a comedy, the premise that we tend to say “no” more than we say “yes” is probably true for most caregivers. So here is another challenge for you: Accept the next invitation offered to you, add it to your calendar, and make every effort to attend. Accepting invitations will help you rebuild some of the relationships you may have neglected since becoming a caregiver.
It is true that, sometimes, you will need to cancel your plans. It is also true that you do not know what the next day will bring. What you can do is take small steps to add activities into your life that you choose (and enjoy). Doing so will allow you to refuel, give your loved one a much-needed break (from you), rebuild your relationships, improve the quality of your life, and remind you that you are a whole person outside of your role as caregiver.