My husband and I have embarked on adventures unplanned this year. Instead of hiking and traveling as empty nesters, we have become caregivers. In no way is this a complaint. It is just truthful thoughts about how life duties change course in the blink of an eye and that the best laid plans are moved to the wayside due to more important priorities.
About 18 months ago, we began caring for 3 family members. We thought, at that time, that we knew how to easily and skillfully care for adults outside of our immediate family. Many years ago, I had cared for my mother on a daily basis until she died. I knew what to expect, right?
In the last year and a half, we have grown in knowledge and skill. We’ve learned about the Power of Attorney, dementia, long term care insurance, medicare, hospice, intervention, rehab, sober house, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, how to sell someone else’s home, how to plan a funeral, sorting through and preserving family treasures, creating trust funds and caring for additional pets, while maintaining our own home, work and immediate family commitments. Over the past 8 months, I have felt overwhelmed with emotion: hope, sadness, nostalgia, resolution, fear, love and resignation.
My personality drives me to review everything. What could we have done differently to make the outcome “better”, “easier”, “more successful”. After almost every visit with a loved one or every afternoon of packing up a house, I have rehashed decisions and actions with my husband. For months I have criticized my abilities, but have finally learned to let go of many expectations. I now know that it is OK to just be in the moment with someone who is no longer in control of his own destiny. Sometimes we need to walk away, and other times, when dismissed, it is important to stay anyway.
I write this not to gain accolades or to receive pity. At some point in all of our lives, we will serve as caregivers: for a parent, a spouse, a friend or a child. I write to share how you can help caregivers care for others.
How to help a caregiver
Do not judge
Caregivers need to make decisions and rarely are they easy. Deciding what is “best” for someone who has entrusted that power to you is an awesome responsibility. In some cases, there are legal documents stating the requested course of action, and in others caregivers need to make a judgement call. In both cases, caregivers question whether they are doing the right thing. Having judgement-free support of family and friends make the decisions more manageable.
I am rather surprised at the number of times that I have poured out my heart to unsuspecting listeners. People meaning well have asked simplistic questions like, “How is your family?” I have unabashedly and honestly answered that question, my words like lava pouring forth from a volcano. In my mind, I want to curb my comments, and say things like, “My family is well. All is great. Everything is working like clockwork”. But I cannot help but share genuine feelings. There is virtually nothing that the listener can say that will change our situation. We have researched 99% of the options and we have spoken to medical and psychological professionals on how to handle each individual situation. What caregivers often need is to spew and unload the emotions that have been building up: worry, frustration, concern, fear, impatience, aggravation, insecurity and sadness.
Offer to help
If you are sincere about easing the burden of a caregiver, then offer tangible help: time, physical aid, resources, knowledge and so forth. I will be forever grateful to the family members who gave up time and effort to help us pack up a lifetime of items and move them into storage. Just as helpful were the people who researched resources for us, providing us with time to continue care, rather than spending time on the phone or in appointments. One brother-in-law found the most convenient storage unit for the packed up household “stuff” and another found the ideal therapist to help us navigate through some health issues. My sister physically sat with my father every afternoon until his wife returned home from work, providing all of us with peace of mind and my dad, with companionship and safety. Attorney friends have given me perpetual advice on the arduous task of legally caring for others. Help comes in many different forms. Knowing that we can rely on a promise of aid often changes our entire outlook for the day.
Provide prayers and positive energy
As a Christian, prayer is the most important gift that someone can provide to me. I cherish every moment when I’ve received words of faith or positive thoughts. It is those moments and interactions that bolster my resolution to move forward. Cards, texts, facebook messages and hugs with a whisper, “I am praying for you”, are what ultimately help us continue to help those whom we love.