Caregivers Need to Maintain Their Social Life

Caregiver, patient expert

Sometimes it's just easier to stay home. I'll admit I have these thoughts more often than most people, as I don't have a very social personality. However, when it comes to caregivers, it's often undeniably true - it easier to stay home.

When you are caring for someone, whether it's in your home or getting help from assisted living or a nursing home, going out either by yourself or with your loved one can be stressful.

Holidays throw the whole "get together" idea into a blinding spotlight. We want our elders or mates to have a good holiday, but often - especially when dementia is involved - they don't understand what is happening. We know that, and wonder if it's worth it to even go through the motions. Then, there's the problem of their disorientation when they are brought into strange surroundings. So, sometimes it seems not only easier, but kinder, to not expose our loved ones to too much action.

A gentleman I know cares for his wife who has Alzheimer's disease. A loving couple for decades, this marriage is not going to be broken by dementia. While the couple still goes out to eat, the places that work for them have grown fewer. While they still have some company dinners at their home, the entertaining has grown simpler. And while they still occasionally go to friends homes, these gatherings are smaller and more intimate than in the past. He seems to have found a balance that works for them.

Many people also need to get out alone for a break from caregiving. That can be tough enough when you just want to get to the grocery store. When there's a party you have been invited to, things can get stickier. If you have a parent living with you who wants to go everywhere you go, you can find yourself turning down invitations just because it's not worth the battle to try to go alone and you don't want to take the parent with you. Don't let guilt stop you from going out. There are options.

You can often hire help from an in-home care agency, if you don't have a friend who can sit with your loved one. Volunteers from faith groups and programs such as RSVP's Senior Companions can be called upon.

If we won't push ourselves to respond to invitations they will dwindle. People will get tired of asking. And many caregivers, no matter where the loved one lives, can sink into isolation and start refusing opportunities to go out with friends because seems too exhausting to go. It's just one more thing to do. I did that, even when the last three of my elders were living in a nursing home.

I still spent time with them everyday, and the emergency calls, plus the frequent phone calls from my mother, kept me psychologically tethered to the home even if I wasn't physically needed every minute. So, I often didn't go to parties given by friends, with the excuse that I was needed by someone.

I now know that much of that was inertia. Would I have been better off if I'd done more socializing during those years of juggling five elders and two children? Given my personality, I'm not sure. But I do know I isolated. Sometimes that was the right thing for me. I needed down time. But down time can feed isolation, as well.

Finding a balance is key here, as with so many other things. If you are living with someone with dementia, it is likely good for you to get out alone occasionally, even if it's just coffee with a friend. If you are the caregiver with your loved one in a nursing home, you deserve to be "off duty" now and then, and should be able to have someone else run interference when problems arise.

If you are not feeling the lack of socialization, you may want to double check with a friend and see if that is because you are truly happier the way it is (and it may be so), or if you are isolating because it's easier to stay home than to load your loved one into the car and go out in public, or find someone else to take over while you go out alone.

This holiday season take a look at your mood and your motives. What will make you happy? A little time out with friends at a gathering, without your loved one? No guilt needed. More home time while your loved one is entertained elsewhere? Snuggle in and read a good book or watch that DVD that's gathering dust. There is no right or wrong, but caregivers get so used to not thinking about themselves that they sometimes forget there may be options.

Look at the options this holiday season, and see what you really want to do. Then try to allow at least some of it to happen. Some socialization is healthy for us all. You need to find the best balance you can realistically achieve.

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