We all struggle to make sense of who we are. Typically, we identify ourselves by our relationships to others (i.e. “I am a wife, a mother, a sister”) and what we do (i.e. “I am a teacher”). Our identities change along with our life events, some of which are more definitive than others. Yet, despite regularly performing care-giving duties for our aging or ill loved ones, we often do not identify ourselves as “caregivers.”
“Caregiver” is an obscure identity, as there is no single description for what it entails. It, like many other identities, expresses a significant change in one’s life. However, unlike the welcome identity shifts throughout life, this change is often painful and isolating. It challenges us at every level: emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially. Caregiving wears away our patience and increases feelings of depression and anxiety. We become frustrated with our loved ones and then feel guilty about our aggravation. As a result, we often feel overwhelmed, lonely, and as though we cannot keep up. We feel unsteady in a chaotic situation and question our ability to regain our balance. Due to these challenges, all caregivers need support in order to continue to function effectively.
Generally, these feelings are common but rarely discussed with our family and friends. We worry about what people would think of us if they knew how we really felt; we chastise ourselves for being “too emotional;” we convince ourselves to push our feelings to the backburner and deal with them when we are not so busy. In the long run, these emotions will catch up to us and they cause us to burn out. If we continue to deny our emotions and place ourselves last, then our ability to care for our loved ones will diminish. We cannot keep running.
When we feel overwhelmed, angry, or depressed as caregivers, these emotions are signs to us that there is probably an issue that needs to be addressed. First, we need to acknowledge our identity as a caregiver. Once we are able to say, “I am a caregiver,” we can then begin to understand and address the issues that accompany this role. It is essential to accept the role changes in our lives, and be compassionate and patient with ourselves in the process. When we continue to ignore or deny these role changes, then we subject ourselves to increased stress and declining overall health.
Next, we can work to regain “order” in our lives. A good place to start is to take steps to resolve all legal decisions regarding our loved ones, which will alleviate unnecessary stress and ideally help us in the future. Tasks such as ensuring that wills are up-to-date, naming a Power of Attorney, and establishing Medical Directives are concrete duties that help caregivers feel like they are more capable of managing the situation once completed.
It is also necessary to learn to let go, especially in areas where it is either not our job or where we have no control. Look at the situation realistically and determine what you are able to do and what you are not able to do. Learning to set limits and boundaries is a vital part of self-care. In order to develop healthy boundaries, we need to start learning how to be emotionally honest with ourselves, start owning our feelings, and communicate in a direct and honest manner. Once we are able to hear our own voices, our decisions will generally be what is best for our loved one and best for us in the long run.
All of these things are easier said than done. During these difficult times, it is important for caregivers to practice good self-care and focus on the bottom line – planning for our loved ones’ care and future. Therapy is a wonderful way to process the events and emotions that caregivers experience. A skilled therapist can help caregivers work through feelings of anxiety, frustration, uncertainty, and fear that we often experience as our loved ones age and decline.
Mediation is another means to relieve the stress in this difficult situation. Mediators act as a neutral third party and can assist families in developing and agreeing upon a plan of care for their loved one. Therapists and mediators can provide support and guidance on how to navigate end-of-life tasks that caregivers face such as handling the demands of providing daily care, establishing and enforcing boundaries, exploring new responsibilities and roles within the family, and planning for the future.
Caring for a loved one is a demanding and often lonely experience. It is imperative for caregivers to reach out and accept support in order to continue providing quality care for the duration.
About the Author
Amy Neu, MSW, LCSW
Amy Neu received her Masters in Social Work from the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University. Amy provides private therapy for adults, families, and seniors who are facing a variety of issues including depression, anxiety, grief, coping with medical issues, and end of life. She has significant experience counseling seniors, caregivers, and families within medical systems and during transitional periods from home to alternate levels of care.
In addition to Amy’s clinical practice, she provides on-site counseling and education to staff throughout the continuum of senior living communities.