Imagine a battlefield. People are wounded. Some are screaming in pain. Others are close to death. It’s easy to freak-out, but as a caregiver in the midst of your own war zone, you can’t afford to panic. You are the triage nurse. You have to float above the scene and figure out how to not only care for one, but manage many. This doesn’t mean you don’t care, that you don’t wish you could stop right there and cry or scream or freeze and go numb. You can’t. Not now. Not yet.
You may not recognize that you’re living in a state of panic (or drama) because it’s been so long that it’s your new norm. You do what’s right in front of you. The person who screams the loudest, demands the most gets your attention first. The one who needs an MRI, a refill on meds, is in the hospital can pull all your thoughts and energy toward them. The problem is, someone else, the person who is quiet, who is suffering emotionally, who isn’t “in your face” may be the one who is in the most danger. Being in a sandwich generation is common, and it’s so, so hard to choose between your child and an aging parent–and every day, every situation is slightly different.
Maybe it’s your marriage that’s taking the brunt of all your caregiving. Maybe it’s your child or grandchild who needs your guidance. Or maybe it’s you and your health who has stepped aside too many times, who doesn’t want to bring attention to the fact that you’re cramming painkillers (think about that word for a moment) because your back is in spasms. Ignoring and/or denying what’s right in front of you is easy when you tell yourself you don’t have time to do it all, but there are things you’ll never get back (your years with your child, your health can’t always recover).
If you’ve ever watched a great medical show you know how the scene plays out–the one who is in charge–who makes the tough decisions is why in the end everyone gets cared for. They slice through the noise, through the fights, the family members pitching fits, and they zero in one what has to get done first. It’s their ability to detach that makes them so effective.
There’s nothing like a cool head in a chaotic situation.
Here’s a short caregiving triage checklist:
Recognize the situation
Prioritize what needs to get done/who needs your initial attention
Make a plan
Get others to help
Recognize that you won’t catch everything and accept that
Don’t get sucked into one person’s drama
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable
Remember that sometimes all you can offer is connection–holding hands, a comforting word
When it’s over, assess and process–it’s important that you do feel, you do acknowledge what you and others have gone through
It may sound cold–when it’s your mother, your partner, your child, but it’s not. Everyone will feel safer and calmer when you’re not in caregiver freak-ou t mode. We don’t always have the luxury of falling apart right on the spot, but it’s important to step away–into your closet, in the privacy of your car–and feel what you’re going through. To feel your losses, your fears, to find someone you can confide in, and to let go and let it all out. Choose those moments and take them. Holding it together all the time is beyond exhausting and all those emotions (worry, guilt, resentment, fear) will leak out in the most inappropriate ways–so when the initial full-blown crisis begins to subside a bit, step out and give yourself permission to feel.