As family caregivers, it can feel as though there are more losses than gains in our lives. Our loved one loses their health and independence, and we can lose our time, identity, patience, and even careers. Change and loss become dependable constants in our caregiving life.
One of the most common complaints of change amongst caregivers is the feeling of isolation. With time as our most valued commodity and stress as our new and uninvited best friend, making room for the support we need is very often one of the first things we let fall by the wayside. We are simply too busy, and if we aren’t too busy, we are simply too tired to engage in the things that once made us excited.
Adding to that can be our friends who sometimes call less frequently, or make assumptions that we are probably too busy to attend the party and so the invite never gets sent, or we just can’t muster the energy to go to book club because it’d mean having to do one more thing that day. And sometimes it’s us who pull away from the friend that continues to perkily say of our terminally ill partner or parent, “They’re going to get better, I just know they will!” because that kind of fantasy doesn’t help us at all.
All of this is reason enough to say, “Good riddance!” to people for a while. Why bother with making plans you may have to cancel, attend parties that you could need to leave mid-champagne toast, or worse yet, need to get off the couch and fix your hair to attend? I give you full permission to say, “See ya!” to all that. But in saying goodbye I am going to ask you to say hello. Say, “Hello” to someone new, someone like you, someone who is also a caregiver. Why?
Sharing your experience with someone else that speaks your language with no need for translation is a powerful way to be supported by someone who understands where you are coming from. If there is only one thing that you do for yourself this month, I urge you to make finding a new friend in caregiving be that thing.
Where might you find your new BFF? How about daring yourself to attend a local caregiver support group meeting? Or, there may be people who are members of caregiving websites you visit (like this one!) that you could send an email to and introduce yourself. Or you could do what I did in one of the most uncharacteristic moves of my introverted life…
When my dad was living in the memory care unit of an assisted living, I knew no one who had a parent in the same environment. I felt like an explorer without a map. The pain of watching his decline was on certain days unbearable. Visiting with him daily, I began to notice one or two other daughters passing me in the halls with frequency yet we never gave more than polite nods of hello to one another. Until the one day my caregiving experience changed forever and for the better.
Dad was one of two men living in the unit. The other man’s daughter was one of the women I saw just about every time I was visiting my father. She and I had done a lot of hello nodding to each other.
One fall afternoon as I was leaving for the day, this daughter was walking out the door about 40-steps ahead of me. Giving no thought to what I was about to do, I sprinted up ahead to catch her. Winded and catching my breath (because caregiver’s true confession: I wasn’t exercising regularly) I introduced myself and quickly realized that I was talking to one of the sweetest people I would ever meet. She blurted out her latest issues; I nodded and responded with lots of, “Yes! Me too” statements and before we left the parking lot, we had exchanged emails and scheduled a lunch with another daughter whose mom was also living in the unit.
That lunch with two strangers had happened one year before my dad died. To this day, five years later, the three of us, now former family caregivers, are still friends. What is unique is that we each were born in different decades, yet the experience of caregiving let us transcend our ages. We spent hours sneaking out to the diner for lunch after visiting our parents to share our stories and latest caregiving conundrums with each other. We looked in on one another’s parents and reported back with anything worthy of concern. We would fill our email inboxes with funny stories and updates. We took proactive trips to visit the nursing homes that we would eventually need to admit our parents into after inevitable declines in their health. We combined our families and shared a Christmas celebration in the unit the year our parents were not well enough to travel. We were there at the funerals with lots of chocolate, flowers and emotional support. And, we were there and are still here to offer listening ears to the unique feelings that appear post-caregiving.
When I think of my caregiving friends, I’ve never felt to be truer the expression, “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
Caregiving and the people you will meet change your life in the most new and unexpected ways. Why not go out and meet one of these people today? All you need is the word, “Hello!”
Colleen Kavanaugh cared for both of her parents for a decade beginning in her early 30’s in the midst of working and raising her young family. The experience of caring for a mother with breast cancer and father with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases moved her to become a Certified Caregiving Consultant. Using her professional background in product design, personal assisting and organizing, Colleen works with her clients to create tools that help streamline their lives and cultivate a deeper sense of mission that, together, enable them to get through those less than perfect days. You can contact her at TheLongestDance.com