How To Take Care Of Yourself When You're Someone Else's Caregiver
There are many reasons we agree to take on the ultimate role reversal of caring for a parent. Feelings of guilt, obligation, responsibility, and love can be a part of the equation. Suddenly, you're juggling too many balls as a parent, spouse, employee, friend, and caregiver. There is little room left for you in this scenario.
Your mom and dad will always be your parents, regardless of your age. Past relationships with your parents and siblings will influence your interactions as their caregiver. Spend some time reflecting on the labels you had growing up in your family. These memories may be good and bad. Were you the good kid or the troublemaker? How do you see yourself today as an adult member of your family? How will it affect your ability to be a member of the caregiving team for your parent?
Include this in your thinking as you carve out your role as your parent's caregiver. If there was past or current conflict, you may want to add additional members to your caregiving team. There may be family, friends, or health care professionals from whom your parent might be more open to getting the necessary assistance.
Be honest and forgiving with yourself when tough decisions must be made.
There is almost a biological instinct to want to take care of an ailing parent who has been your lifelong caregiver. When you become a caregiver, it can shape your entire identity because it often consumes your time and energy in myriad ways. You must be proactive about preserving areas of your life that offer you personal rewards. Identify what makes you feel good about yourself apart from your role as caregiver. With that in mind, here are some lessons and related tips I learned as a caregiver and medical social worker to help you on this journey:
1. Allow yourself to feel the loss.
You are witnessing your parent's diminishing mental and physical health as their caregiver. The parent you knew is no longer there. It's important to allow yourself to grieve this loss. If your parent was abusive, there may be anger about assuming a caregiver role for someone who did not take care of you. A common mistake caregivers make is ignoring their feelings, which causes additional burdens of burnout, anger, and stress.
Identify someone you trust who you can talk with while you are a caregiver. You need to honestly discuss how your role as a caregiver is affecting you emotionally and physically. Choose people whom you can talk to candidly. If nobody can fill this role, consider seeing a clergy member or health care professional specializing in grief and loss. This is a significant way of maintaining your identity, acknowledging your humanity, your abilities, and limitations. An objective outside perspective is important.
2. Ask for help when you need it.
When my father became seriously ill it became apparent that I, my siblings, and a companion were not enough. My dad had multiple hospitalizations resulting from falls and other problems. We knew he wanted to stay at home, but an alternative decision had to be made. He needed 24-hour care in a skilled nursing program to stay safe. There were many sleepless nights getting crisis phone calls before I allowed myself to admit this. I was struggling in an emotional and physical fog and functioning on a marginal level before I allowed myself to consider this. Be honest and forgiving with yourself when tough decisions must be made.
Caregiving can take an enormous toll. Your loved one may not get all the help they need despite your best efforts. There is no shame in getting additional help like companions, respite care, assisted living, or a nursing home. Consult your parent's doctor, a hospital social worker, or local geriatric specialist to determine the level, type, and amount of additional care that is needed.
3. Revisit your original role.
I needed my dad to be my father and he needed to be my parent even when he was ill. I asked him for advice on raising my dog and being a parent. He loved studying the economy and politics. I would intentionally get his financial advice. The familiarity of assuming our original roles brought us both a measure of comfort and was a bonding experience for us.
Allow your parent to be a parent whenever possible. Create these moments. If they can't parent now, reminisce with them about meaningful times in the past when they fulfilled that role for you. Talk about how that felt. Photographs can help with people who have memory issues.
Caregiving can involve intimate activities like bathing and dressing. It may feel uncomfortable for both of you engaging in these tasks. Find nonfamily members to help with these jobs. Respect your privacy and theirs in these situations. Talk with your parent about potential areas of discomfort. Work together in creating a plan that can help manage these awkward circumstances.
Don't ask yourself to do the impossible. Recognize what you can and cannot sacrifice and control. Regularly engage in other positive relationships. Create ongoing time for activities that you can enjoy guilt-free. Give yourself permission to put your needs first in spending time with people who nurture you. Be patient with yourself. Caregiving can be overwhelming. It can also be rewarding if safeguards are in place to ensure your well-being.