This article started out as an email to a dear friend, whose latest book, one of many that he authored, was featured on a national televised program. I intended it to serve a dual purpose: one, to applaud his accomplishment, and two, to apologize for not having done so earlier. I initially started to attribute my lack of a timely response to old age and forgetfulness, but that didn’t fly. Then, I considered using Hurricane Harvey as an excuse, but that also seemed lame to me.
I finally decided to attribute my negligence to my wife’s recent surgery and my role as a caregiver. However, after giving it more thought, I realize that over the past two years I have curtailed social activities, limited time I previously devoted to writing and stopped meeting with friends for lunch. In their place, I devoted my time to caring for my wife, who underwent one year filled with constant physical pain, and a second year during which she had three major surgeries – the first, in January, for a shoulder replacement; the second and third, in August and November, for knee replacements.
Your reaction might be, “That’s a lot of surgery in a short period of time; she’s got to be a real trooper.” Those were the thoughts I had and they explain why I attempted to become quintessential caretaker. The role, itself, wasn’t particularly difficult and, in many ways, it was emotionally rewarding. I felt needed, and the effort I exerted was well-received. My wife was appreciative, and my family and friends perceived me as a caring, compassionate husband. It was a win-win situation, at least initially.
More recently, however, I’ve become increasingly irritable and quarrelsome. My frustration tolerance has significantly deteriorated, and, on occasion, I’ve found myself tired of the caregiver role. To say the least, I’m not at all proud of these feelings but, after giving them serious thought, I have come to the realization that two years of being a caregiver have taken their toll. Despite that my wife would say that I have dutifully carried out my caregiver responsibilities and would add that whatever irritation or upset I’ve demonstrated is totally understandable.
However, the primary reason for this article isn’t to acclaim me. Instead, the message I want to convey to every individual who has ever found themselves in a similar situation, is that too often caretakers fail to realize that, in order for them to effectively give care to others, they must first take care of themselves. Let’s face it; caregiving is a difficult job emotionally and physically. You’re a full-time chauffeur, nurse, cook and maid. It stands to reason that, if you don’t attend to your own well-being, you won’t be able to provide the physical care, positive attitude and compassion needed by the persons you’re caring for – who, because of the ordeal they’re experiencing, won’t always be on their best behavior.
What most caretakers don’t realize is that they’re not in it alone, that you’re as anxious, tense and concerned about the condition of the one being cared for as they are. Consequently, every time they’re in pain or voice their despair, it affects you. Not because you don’t care, but because you’re unable to relieve their discomfort. Intellectually you know that healing is a painful process and that their pain isn’t your fault. But, emotionally, you forget that and react out of your emotions instead of your intellect.
One additional thought is that, despite the accolades you receive as a caregiver, you still will feel unappreciated. Everyone’s attention, concern and emotional involvement, probably rightfully so, is directed toward your ward. As a result, you become invisible, sometimes even to yourself. Thus, you’re apt to feel resentment or irritation which, even when they aren’t openly expressed, the caretaker usually realizes. Despite your good intentions, he or she will wind up “paying” for the care you give by virtue of your negative attitude while you, on the other hand, will wind up feeling guilty. In effect, you react to each other but rarely reveal the feelings behind your reactions. As a result, the caregiver feels unappreciated, trapped and burdened and the caretaker feels useless and unworthy of the care he or she receives. Although you share the same goal, getting well, it isn’t evidenced by your emotions.
Ironically, the feelings of both the caregiver and caretaker are normal. You’re allowed to have them. You needn’t feel guilty or punish yourself for them. You’re not a bad or uncaring person. The real problem is that openly sharing your feelings, your relationship and the quality of your care will suffer. That being the case, let me say it again, Caregiver: Give to yourself. Accept that, on occasion, you won’t be the 100 percent nurturing person you should or want to be. Similarly, Caretaker: Ask for the care you require and accept that you won’t always be the 100 percent appreciative individual that you would like to be. Both of you have to learn to settle for less than perfection and to forgive your shortcomings.
I know, personally, that only after recognizing, admitting and sharing my own negative feelings was I able to realize that I’m OK. The result is my caregiving and my attitude are far more positive and our relationship, despite the ordeal we’re dealing with, has brought us closer, instead of driving us apart.
This doesn’t just apply to caretakers and caregivers. The need for people to share their feelings and relate openly with one another is an opportunity that evidences itself in every stressful situation. Think of the individuals who lose their homes during floods and hurricanes, people who find themselves faced with financial difficulties, or tragically those who lose a child and then, because they cannot share their grief, their feelings of guilt, and/or their sadness, wind up blaming and alienating each other because they’re unable to accept and verbalize their own emotions. In all too many instances, the end result is divorce, instead of mutual support and love.