You Weren’t Always a Caregiver and You Won’t Always Be One
Posted Sep 15 2009 10:37pm
You weren’t born a caregiver, although it might feel like it. This morning, I noticed that a bright orange Crepe Myrtyle leaf lying on the grass. Fall is on its way. Yes, I live in Florida, and yes, it’s still hot–but it feels different than a few weeks ago. The click in the gear has already begun. The seasons are changing. Caregiving is like that leaf. It comes in seasons, and you can’t fight the seasons life gives you no more than I can glue that leaf back on its branch, paint it green and declare it Spring.
Some people seem to care for someone most of their life–a sibling, their alcoholic parent, their co-dependent spouse. It’s not that we mean to attract it, but for some, caregiving is a recurrent theme. For most, caregiving is something we’ll do more than once in our lifetime. But I do know this: You won’t always be in your caregiving role.
You weren’t always a caregiver, were you? You were a child, a teenager, a young person–in college or with a new job-career. You fell in love. You traveled. You birthed children, raised them. Maybe you got a divorce, remarried, changed careers. Even though caring for others may have been a part of your life many times over, it didn’t completely sideline you.
So why should caregiving sideline you now? Yes. There comes a time, particularly in elder-care, chronic illnesses, or at the end of life, you need to stop everything else and just be with your loved one. There are times when another person’s care is all-consuming–time, emotions, finances…you name it and it takes it all. But that needs to be the rare occasion and for the least amount of time possible. Why? It’s not a healthy way to live. If you’re not careful, you’ll find that you’re living for and maybe even through someone else, and that’s not good if you do it for too long at a time.
Think of it this way: Humans are capable of running marathons. We can exert great physical and emotional energy and do amazing things–for a short period of time. Our bodies have great reserves (and I believe our spirits do as well). They say we only use 10% of our brains and 20% of our body’s capabilities in everyday life. We have enormous reserves. We have to. When we need to tap into that deep well of energy, thought, and focus, it drains it very quickly.
Stress is like jet fuel–it takes a huge amount, so our stockpile has to stay stocked. Intense caregiving is a lot like a marathon–you really can’t expect your body to run 26 miles a day, every day.
I fought full-time caregving in the beginning. I was a sandwich generation mom. I already had a full-plate life. But my mom needed me–I worried about her falling, not eating, not taking her meds–that other people were having to do my load.
Even after we moved her into our home–I avoided her/caregiving. I’m not proud of that, but I just couldn’t be with her all the time. She got on my nerves, made me nervous, however you want to put it. It took time–I felt judged, watched, consumed by an all-present mother-figure. She certainly had no qualms about stating that she was in charge. It took time, but we learned how to live together again.
Caregiving allowed me to dance around, dip into, and even avoid it for a season, and then the seasons changed. I couldn’t leave my mom with my husband or children (they were teens and quite competent). She was too emotionally volatile and her medications and needs were too intricate to explain. One by one, my activities dwindled. Death was like an intrusive relative who moved in with way too many bags and set up housekeeping.
The last year of my mother’s life was a series of secessions, and from March until June, I did nothing but watch my mother die. Each week got quieter. Each week I gave up a little more of the outside world. At first, I was angry and scared–death is an unwelcome and rude guest. As time went on, I learned how to let my family go on about the business of living–jobs, school, boyfriends, and part-time jobs. I became comfortable with the fact that I was supposed to spend these last months by my mother’s side. Like a circle that kept growing tighter and tighter, I drew close to her.
It felt like she’d never die–only continue dying. The last few weeks were grueling, and now I know the meaning of that word. It’s not that I wanted her to, it was just so painful, so quiet, so intense…
And then it was over. The funeral home people came, took her body, and I walked back in her room, her empty room. I’d never felt so lost, so unhinged, so exhausted and depleted in every way.
Getting used to that space in my life–that caregiving space that was now an empty room with empty hours with empty purpose–it was such a void and it took time and being tender with myself. I’d lost my mom. Who was I now? What was I if I wasn’t a caregiver?
New seasons came. I returned to college. Helped one daughter get married, two off to college. I wrote a book. I now travel and speak and teach. More seasons to come.
If you’re just starting caregiving and wondering where this will take you, how long you’ll be caregiving, try not to jump too far ahead–there’s just too many what if’s out there. If you’re coming to the end of your caregiving journey, hang on–it won’t last forever–and that’s a good and not good thing.
Currently, I’m not a caregiver, but I know that one day, that season will come back into my life. I’ll be out walking one day–I’ll look down, and there will be a crisp autumn leaf reminding me that a change is about to come.