What It Means To Be A Caregiver

An older woman and her mother leaning against each other

At some point in your life (and for some, at multiple points throughout your life) you will find yourself providing care for someone else. Often becoming a caregiver is a role you had not anticipated needing to fill. Or if you had anticipated becoming a caregiver “someday”, perhaps you didn’t anticipate the “someday” happening quite when it did.

Regardless of whether you had anticipated assuming this role, the transition to becoming a caregiver often brings with it a lot of adjustment. On one level, how you spend your time daily may need to shift significantly. You may now need to adjust or plan your schedule around the needs of the person for whom you are providing care. You may need to provide physical care to someone, perhaps for significant periods of time. This may become physically challenging or exhausting.You may be called on to perform activities for someone who had previously been independent in these tasks, such as bathing, paying bills, or preparing meals.

On another level, there are many ways in which caregivers indirectly care for their loved ones. You may be required to help coordinate logistics and/ or transportation. You may assume the responsibility of searching for information about medical diagnoses or treatment options. You may need to attend doctor appointments and take notes during these appointments. You may need to make phone calls regarding medical care or support. In all likelihood, you will assume some combination of these or other activities throughout your journey as a caregiver.

What it means to be a caregiver What It Means To Be A Caregiver

What it means to be a caregiver: Caretaking can take an emotional toll, it’s a lot of work holding everything together.

Some days may be full of tasks, and other days, none at all. Other days can be wrought with worries and concerns about the current situation or for the future. Every day may bring new challenges. All of this, of course, may mean significant changes in your own lifestyle. It may mean needing to take time off or a longer leave of absence from work. Your “free” time may seem to vanish, and you may need to alter your recreational or travel plans in order to do what you need to do as a caregiver. This can, in and of itself, be a huge source of stress to both you and to your family. There can be added strain due to loss of income or the limited time or ability to participate in usual activities.

Caregiving and relationship Dynamics

Frequently, caregiving puts a strain on interpersonal relationships. Oftentimes there can be resentment building if the burden of providing care is not distributed evenly between all who could be potential caregivers. For example, if the care provided to an aging parent is (perceived to be) disproportionately provided by one individual or if there are unequal levels of personal sacrifice, this often creates or exacerbates strain in the sibling relationship.

Another result of the necessities of changes in the allocation of time, energy, and interpersonal dynamics is that other non-caregiving relationships can feel strained. This is particularly true for those identifying as part of the “Sandwich Generation”. For those providing care to both dependent children as well as aging parents at the same time, this leaves little time and energy for other responsibilities. As a result, things often feel out of balance and overwhelming.

Furthermore, the relationship between the caregiver and the person receiving care also may weigh on the caregiver. While many caregivers feel blessed that this relationship often strengthens during this period (e.g increased feelings of closeness, bonding, enjoying spending time together, satisfaction in feeling helpful, and feeling appreciated), that does not mean that the relationship dynamics are not without challenges. Furthermore, if there was a strained relationship previously, this can carry forward into or become exacerbated by the current set of circumstances. Finally, feelings of resentment related to caregiving (e.g. not feeling appreciated, loss of their own freedom), whether transient or persistent, can present challenges.

All of these situations are common, as are reactions to these demands.

The Emotional Impact of Caregiving

Sometimes being a caregiver means being there to support someone else close to you who is having a hard time, trying to process a lot of new information, or helping that person make decisions about the care they are to receive. Sometimes being a caregiver means feeling like you have to pretend that you are stronger than you actually feel. Sometimes being a caregiver means breaking down when something becomes too much. It is a lot of work to hold everything all together. Caregiving can take a toll emotionally.

Fortunately, there are many available and accessible support resources for caregivers.  Individual therapy may provide the necessary support and safe space to work through emotions. Additionally, joining a caregiver support group (whether in person or online) can dramatically improve the quality of life while caregiving. The support that caregivers offer each other may provide comfort unmatched from other sources. Caregiving can at times feel isolating; a caregiver support group can provide a profound sense of connection.

Though perhaps seemingly hard to find, other sources of support exist. For example, educational workshops, respite services, or patient or caregiver-focused organizations offering services or information may be able to offer supplementary support in coping with challenges of caregiving. The internet is a good source of information about where to locate appropriate resources, as is speaking with the patient’s nurse, patient navigators or other healthcare team members. These resources facilitate feeling recharged and refreshed, alleviating strain, allow the caregiver to reflect, or provide new informational or support resources.

Most notably, you as the caregiver is ultimately responsible for recognizing when things are becoming too much for you. This can be challenging to see for yourself. One thing to regularly check in on with yourself is how much you feel that your own life is in balance. By nature of the responsibilities of caregiving, things naturally become out of balance. It may seem selfish to focus more on yourself and your own needs as the balance shifts away from you, but it is not. Giving yourself permission for self-care is fundamental to how you provide care. A more balanced caregiver often means a more refreshed, focused, and happier caregiver. Therefore, it is up to you to see that you take time for yourself. It is not selfish to engage in hobbies, connect with nature, exercise, rest, or nurture your other relationships when you recognize that this will be good for you. Allowing yourself to do so will ultimately help you become a better caregiver and promote all of the good that can come out of caregiving.

Marni Amsellem, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in health psychology and coping. She maintains a part-time private practice and is also a research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations. You can reach her at www.smarthealthpsych.com or via twitter @smartpsychreads

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