Do you provide assistance to a family member or friend who needs your help on a regular basis? Maybe you just stop by after work 2 or 3 times a week to ‘check in’ on your elderly parent, or maybe you pick up a chronically ill friend’s laundry once a week (to do at home). Maybe you cook/freeze a few meals a week to leave with your frail grandparents. Or maybe you wake up every morning to start another day of 24-7 care giving for someone who depends on you.
Care giving—the act of helping someone who is chronically ill, disabled, or frail and elderly—is emerging from the shadows of everyday life into one of the most cataclysmic life challenges any of us will face. And chances are that each one of us will be forced to face it.
Former first lady Rosalyn Carter writes in her book, Helping Yourself Help Others:
“There are only four kinds of people in the world—those who are currently caregivers, those who have been caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
Caregiving is “the issue of our age”, says caregiver and author Suzanne Mintz. Because of facts like: 1)the baby boomers getting older and living longer and 2) those over the age of 80 representing the fastest growing percentage of the population, close to 39 million people in this country are providing some level of care to someone who needs help.
Are you a caregiver? This is a very important question to ask yourself; many people who care for someone don’t consider themselves to be caregivers. It’s essential that you recognize your role as a caregiver, as opposed to your role as a daughter, or a spouse, or a good friend who’s just fulfilling their moral obligation for those they love.
If you’re a caregiver, how are you? The tasks of care giving vary greatly from situation to situation, as well as the time spent giving care. Locations vary also, and yet for all the differences noted between caregivers’ responsibilities, there is a common thread of experience: the emotional impact on your lives.
There are certainly ‘feel-good’ moments (a profound sense of privilege and deep satisfaction) in providing care for those you love, and most caregivers can identify with the positive feelings rather easily. But when it comes to acknowledging that there are negative emotions as well, most caregivers have a difficult time admitting that at times “life is hard”.
Physical strain, fatigue, exhaustion, financial strain, inadequate resources and disrupted ‘normalcy’ are not uncommon experiences for those who are responsible for ‘intense’ (at least 20 hours per week) care giving. Sadness, anger, resentment, guilt, and a sense of inadequacy are understandable reactions when you’re dealing with the emotional and physical realities of ongoing care. But recent research (involving thousands of caregivers in this country) has shown that frequently there is a “disconnect” between the feelings that caregivers experience as they give care and the perceptions of the impact on their lives. There truly is an aspect of suffering that is part and parcel of the care giving package.
The word “suffering” is defined in Webster’s as “the bearing or undergoing of pain, distress, or injury”. If someone asked you (as a caregiver) point blank, “Are you suffering?” how would you respond? Would you exclaim, “Me, suffer…what have I got to be suffering about…it’s my loved one who is suffering.”? And yet, it’s a fact that caregivers tend to put the needs of their dependent loved ones ahead of their own, day-in and day-out, minimizing their own health problems to the extent that they’re at significantly more risk of experiencing physical injury or clinical depression, developing cancer, and increased mortality than those who are not caregivers. Your response to this implication may be, “It’s not as bad as you’re making this sound.” And you may be right. If you’re on your first day-in.
Or you may be thinking, “What’s this ‘suffering’ thing all about? Anyone who loves and is committed to someone who needs care does what they need to do, because that’s just the way it is!” You may be thinking that being the cook, the nurse, the dish washer, the pillow plumper, the medicine scheduler, the listener, the house cleaner, the laundry washer, the bath assistant, the dog walker, the bed maker, the turner and repositioner, the bill payer, the encourager, the picker upper, the entertainer, and the taxi driver are what any normal person in your situation is able to handle, day-in and day-out. And you may be right. On the first day-in. But here’s your gentle reminder…Superman and Superma’m are fictional characters. So……..
Please recognize, first of all, that you’re a caregiver. Please realize how very important you are to the one you’re caring for. Understanding that there are awesome rewards in what you are doing, please recognize that along with the positive life-affirming moments there are challenges that will push you to the edge. Please understand that the only way you can continue to give the kind of care you want to give is if you make a commitment, in your loved one’s name, to take care of yourself.
Look in the mirror, and ask the question, “How are you?” And listen to your answer. Sometimes it’s difficult to be objective about the struggles and feelings entailed in the role of caregiver. You’ll find a Caregiver Self-Assessment Questionnaire at the web site listed below. Please answer the questions, being honest with yourself; then complete the self-evaluation and pay special attention to the directions regarding interpretation of the score. And then, most importantly, follow through with one of the suggested ‘next steps’. There is help to be had, a phone call away. And asking for help when help is needed is a sign of wisdom and strength.