Caregivers of elderly or disabled loved ones work hard. There’s no getting around the sacrifices of time, energy, private life and often financial wellbeing that caregivers, be it family or professional, often make. However, the rewards that accompany this self-sacrifice can be priceless.
With a caregiving history involving decades of caring for multiple loved ones, I know quite a bit about the hard times as well as the blessings of caregiving. Yet, because I’m an eldercare columnist, I receive letters from individuals who have caregiving responsibilities far beyond anything I’ve ever imagined.
Many people are providing intensive care for adult children, others for parents or spouses. I feel it’s safe to say that all of us, with our diverse caregiving responsibilities, have had times when we wonder if we can go on. Conversely, nearly all of us have also had moments when we’ve looked at the people we are caring for and realized that being a caregiver is not just a responsibility, but an honor.
With this New Year upon us, many of us will do some soul-searching in regard to the paths our lives have followed. We’ve knowingly taken on some tasks, while other challenges have seemingly been thrust upon us. We wonder what our lives will hold in the future. That is human.
One thing is certain, however. We need to take control of the guilt producing voices that nag most of us about all of the "could have/should have" caregiving moments, and banish them. At least for me, if I don’t actively throw out these negative thoughts they can over-ride the larger reality. While I wasn’t a perfect caregiver, I was/am a good caregiver. I did my best over many years and continue to do my best. What is "best" is a moving target, depending on the day, the circumstances with our care receiver and our own mental and physical health and stamina.
In the beginning, many of us dive into caregiving with energy, compassion and an almost supernatural feeling that we alone are responsible for the wellbeing and contentment of our loved one. This emotional, adrenaline-based approach can only last so long before reality sets in.
Most of us eventually become aware that we need to slow down a little, accept help from outside sources, and take care of ourselves to some extent or we’ll fall victim to caregiver burnout. This realization doesn’t mean that we love our care receiver(s) less. It simply signals the recognition that we are human, complete with limitations, and as such we may need to enlist the additional help of others for the best care of our loved ones.
Some people look at those who engage the help of professional in-home caregivers, assisted living facilities or nursing homes as people not doing their best. Those are generally people who’ve never been involved in long-term caregiving. We need to learn to ignore them. Engaging outside help simply means that we know our limits and we want the very best care for our loved ones. Engaging outside help can also mean that we recognize the importance of some freedom in our own lives in order to retain our physical and mental health.
To some extent, I believe that my ability to remember the rewards of caregiving as clearly as I do is a result of taking action when my loved ones needed the full-service caregiving of a wonderful nursing home near my own home. I remained a vital part of the caregiving team, and yes, caregiving was still challenging. But I no longer held the full responsibility of my loved ones’ care.
Having some of the responsibility removed from my shoulders allowed me more freedom to be a daughter and friend to my loved ones rather than an exhausted "servant," if you will. Others bathed my loved ones and made certain they had nutritious meals. They kept an eye on daily needs and medication management. They also took the lead in emergencies, though I was always a major part of the caregiving team.
While I visited my loved ones nearly every day and provided significant care, I now had the ability to take some time off when I needed it. If my elders complained, well, they’d still be okay. Even by taking one day for myself, I often found I could return a more refreshed caregiver, which was better for everyone.
Every caregiver has her or his own story. Each circumstance is unique. I’m hoping that whatever your circumstances are, you can have enough control over your caregiving life that you can start to experience the rewards of your dedicated service.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.