Being a Caregiver Offers Important Lessons, Unexpected Gifts
Being a caregiver offers brutal challenges – as well as unexpected gifts. And all of those combined experiences can make you into a better human being. Let me share the lessons I’ve learned from the frontlines of caregiving.
I’ve been in the caregiving role twice. The first time was with my mother, who was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in 1997 and started developing mild cognitive impairment in late 2002. She moved in with me in fall 2005, but was with me for only two weeks before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Health care professionals and our family determined it would better for Mom to move into a skilled nursing home because of her health issues. She passed away in 2007.
In comparison, I now have my elderly father living with me at my home. He’s got a number of health issues, but does not have dementia. After having a major health scare this summer, he now is visited by home health care staff several times each week. He’s slowing down tremendously and continues to struggle physically.
Difference in Caregiving Focus
My caregiving efforts for my parents had two different focuses. With my mother, I found I needed to serve as an advocate, being a visible presence in the nursing home. I had to build a good relationship with the nursing home staff so that I could work in partnership with the staff in addressing any issue – whether a health situation or a behavioral outburst – that emerged so that we didn’t reach a crisis point. I also had to “inspect” Mom’s care, ensuring that critical details were addressed (like making sure her oxygen canister wasn’t empty). And I also had to cut some slack in working with the staff because of Mom’s unpredictable behavior that could prove to be so trying.
My experiences with Mom now serve as a basis for the care I provide for Dad. With Dad, I’m right on the health care front lines. He’s cognitively “with it,” so I have to make sure he’s actively involved in his healthcare decisions. Even then, Dad does have some short-term memory loss so I serve as the institutional memory about what’s happening with his health care. I also am responsible for maintaining his medications and trying to anticipate his needs. In comparison, I wasn’t quite as aware of some of Mom’s medical needs because the nursing home staff worked directly with her doctors and didn’t keep me in the loop with the health care minutia.
Maintaining a Life Outside of Caregiving
In my experience, having a loved one in a facility is easier on the caregiver’s life. I could go visit Mom and then leave, knowing she was in good hands. Thus, I spent more time with friends in social experiences, which helped me regulate my stress levels.
Because of Dad’s pressing health challenges, I don’t get out as much to see friends. Yet, I also find that people are more likely to respond to invitations to come to the house to visit him. Friends also have been great about going to see him in the hospital and volunteering to assist us when we’re in need. Part of that may be because Dad has a great sense of humor and is mentally present. Another reason may be that people were not as comfortable about going to a nursing home to see Mom and didn’t know how to interact with a person with Alzheimer’s disease.
A caregiver’s stress level can easily skyrocket in either of these scenarios. However, I have found that caregiving at home is more stressful for me. My reasoning is that we don’t have round-the-clock health care support. Thus, I worry if Dad does experience a healthcare crisis, I may make the wrong decision since I’m not a medical professional. That knowledge does weigh on me, even though we do have the support of a wonderful home health staff. In comparison, I always knew that the odds were good that Mom would receive the proper care when she needed it, especially since I had built strong relationships with the health care staff at the nursing home.
While caregiving has definitely taken a toll at times, it also has made me a better person. I have developed more patience and greater compassion by providing this service to my parents. In retrospect, feel like I successfully navigated one of the most important tasks in my life in caring for Mom, who was my best friend. And I’ve found that my relationship with Dad has deepened because I’m assisting him. For instance, I’ve learned many things about him that I never would have known otherwise if I wasn’t in this caregiving role.
Caregiving also has caused me to re-evaluate what is important in my life. I no longer stress about issues that used to mean a lot to me, such as getting professional recognition or having the latest technology. Instead, I am being much more selective in what I bring into my life since I’m now seeing firsthand the finite nature of existence.
I’ve seen the aging process up close while helping both parents and witnessed the gaps in the health care system. Therefore, I realize that the quality of my own health is largely in my hands and I need to take the proper steps to protect my own physical, mental and emotional health.
In conclusion, I’ve come to regard caregiving as a gift. At times, being a caregiver is not pretty – and it’s definitely not easy – but it can help you learn more about yourself and even serve as a catalyst in helping you grow into a more passionate, perceptive and fulfilled person.