My mother used to say, “Your Golden Years begin the day your youngest child graduates from high school, and they end the day your health goes to hell.” This stage can also come to an abrupt end when a loved one suffers an injury or is diagnosed with a long-term, progressive and degenerative disease, and you become their caregiver.
According to a 2015 study, there were 43.5 million people in the United States who provided care for a loved one in the previous year. Surprisingly, the average age was 49––just about the age when most of us begin to anticipate enjoying our Golden Years.
The Challenges of Caregiving
Caregivers experience tremendous stress and countless losses as a loved one’s physical and cognitive abilities decline. You grieve the loss of who that person used to be and the relationship you once had with them. You fear how bad it’s going to get, how long it’s going to last and how much it’s going to cost. You struggle with feelings of anger, guilt, depression and grief.
In short, nothing about caregiving is easy. But learning how to take care of yourself may help you maintain the physical and emotional strength you will need to get through it.
Five Strategies for Caring for Yourself While Caring for Others
1. Find a Safe Place to Express Your Feelings: As a caregiver, you may feel like you are caught in a relentless cycle of anger, guilt, depression and grief. If so, it will be important for you to find a place where you can express all of your feelings freely. If there are no support groups in your community, look for one online. Share your frustrations with friends or family members who will let you rant without criticizing you or minimizing your feelings. You may want to keep a journal or start a blog.
The important thing is to realize you will experience intense and negative feelings. This is normal. Having them doesn’t make you a bad person, and expressing them is a lot less dangerous than keeping them bottled up inside.
2. Hang on to your identity: It isn’t uncommon for caregivers to become so absorbed in meeting the needs of their care receivers that they give up their own work, hobbies, activities and social connections. But if you sacrifice everything, you will begin to feel cheated, angry and resentful. Eventually you will deplete your own emotional reserves, and you will have nothing left to give.
That’s why it is essential to do something that helps you stay connected to a life outside of your caregiving responsibilities. Go for a walk, call a friend or spend an hour alone with a book and a really good cup of coffee. Committing to doing at least one thing just for yourself, every single day, will help you maintain your identity and sense of self.
3. Fill Your Own Tank: When people are suffering with a physical illness or chronic pain, their world becomes smaller and smaller. They tend to turn inward and focus solely on their own immediate needs. Instead of being appreciative for your help, they may criticize everything you do. Don’t take it personally.
If the give-and-take in your relationship has become one-sided and your care receiver no longer contributes to your intellectual stimulation and emotional comfort, it will be up to you to find other ways to nourish your soul. Some people lift their spirits with music, meditation, prayer or getting out in nature. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it helps you relieve stress and restore positive feelings and energy.
4. Let Go of What Was––Accept What Is: Alzheimer’s and every other form of dementia will break your heart in a thousand different ways, as your loved one’s memories are erased, their skills become diminished, and their personalities change. To reduce their stress and yours, it will be helpful for you to remember who they were before the disease took over, and accept that they will never be that person again. Understand that as the disease progresses, their reality will become very different from yours. Don’t try to keep them connected to the present, and don’t try to force them to remember anything, because it will only confuse and frustrate them. Treasure your special memories, and accept that they will always be precious, even if you are the only one who remembers them.
(For information on communicating with people living with dementia and managing dementia-related challenging behaviors, please visit this page.)
5. Cut yourself a lot of slack: There will be days when you don’t feel or act as kind and loving as you would like. You will lose your temper. You will feel resentful, frustrated and frightened. You will say and do things that make you feel guilty. You will grieve the loss of the life you used to have, the life you thought you were going to have at this moment and the losses that are still ahead. Caregiving is hard, and you will not do everything right.
When it’s over, and you’re looking back on your experience, you will acknowledge it was hard. You may feel sad you didn’t do everything perfectly, but you’ll know you did the best you could. And you will realize that if someone had done for you all the things you did for your care receiver, you would be very grateful. You will feel a sense of accomplishment and pride, and in time you will be able to leave all of the painful memories behind, and you will go on to create a new and fulfilling life.