“There are only four kinds of people in the world, those who are caregivers, those who were caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need care.” Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter.
People are living longer, today. Life expectancy in the United States has increased by 1.7 years each year, since 2007. And, the good news is this growth in lifespan also includes better health and a more active lifestyle (New York Times). But, this advance in lifespan doesn’t come without its challenges, one of which is that more of us will have to take on the role of informal caregivers for our parents as equally as long as for our children. It’s estimated that 44 million adult Americans will become caregivers for their loved ones who are age 50 or older. That number has doubled in the last twenty years and is expected to triple in the coming twenty.
The sunset years for many baby boomers is going to look different from what they once imagined. Some of them will be ill prepared to manage the financial, physical, and emotional impact of taking on the care of a parent (Caregiving; Huffington Post, June, 2012). They are at risk for developing a medical and mental health condition that the caregiver literature calls the caregiver stress syndrome. This syndrome describes the various physical and mental health changes that caregivers go through, because of the ongoing stress of their caregiving activities. Fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, sleeping too much or too little, less joy, feeling sad and detached from other people, easily irritated, angered and resentful, constantly anxious or worried, having stress-related headaches, loneliness, and body pain, and turning to alcohol, drugs, or prescription drugs to cope are signs that caregivers are being overwhelmed by their responsibilities. Also, bitterness, resentment and guilt can be emotions caregivers feel about conflict over carrying out their role as a caregiver.
Today, there’s excellent information on the character and the risks involved in caregiving than there was in the past. But, most of the help for managing its symptoms concern the exercise of good self-care and the practical aspects of carrying out caregiving activities. Unfortunately, there is less information about the psychological adjustments that caregivers need to make, to assure a good caregiving experience for themselves, and their loved ones. I give you this information, in my post today.
Most everything you have to do in life is that much harder, when you don’t like doing it, right? Your attitude and outlook, understanding, and constructive use of resources suffer, when you approach any activity kicking and screaming as you go along. This is especially so when it comes to being a caregiver. You can’t be a good, loving caregiver, if you resist the psychological changes that open you to this role in life.
Take Jody P., for example. She’s a part-time caregiver to her mother who lives with her. Jody’s situation is poignant (Masks of Anger, Comment by Jody. P). Jody P. says:
This article was so interesting! I have trouble with blowing up at my mother and then I am so sorry. She is always giving advise to her friends and yet she has a terrible track record herself. I know I should mind my own business but it just eats at me that she is such a smart-ass. She was a terrible mother who paid little attention to her kids and is now living with me. She has little education and gave us no encouragement to succeed, yet she advises women who have degrees and have raised children who are successful in this world and far better off than any of us will ever be. She is just arrogant to me and she pushed humility on me while I was growing up. It makes my teeth hurt!!! Sometimes I just lose it in the most ridiculous ways! I know I am hiding something, but I don’t know what. Which mask am I wearing? What should I do to get beyond this terrible anger I have towards the mother that I otherwise adore? I need to be over this seething anger for her sake AND mine. Jody P.
Jody, and I’m sure her mother too, isn’t always happy about their living situation, although they love each other a lot. Because of Jody’s mixed feelings about her past, she is having a hard time emotionally adapting to her role as her mother’s caregiver and roommate. It’s understandable, how can she be ready to take care of her mother, when she didn’t feel well cared for by her in the past?
Some of you are lucky enough to have had unconflicted relationships to your parents. Nonetheless, becoming your parent’s guardian is a huge change in life.
There are three psychological adjustments, in mind and spirit, that you must make, to create a happy, meaningful caregiving experience for you and your parent. Each change that you are able to bring about gives you a mindset that minimizes the stress of carrying out your daily caregiving activities, increases your optimism toward your role as caregiver, and opens you to intimacy with your parent that deepens this special time that you have together.
Adjustment One: You have to make a transition from daughter or son to caregiver of your parent. This is easier to do, if you don’t have mixed feelings toward your parent. The more you are stuck in past hurt, the harder it is to move away from the feelings of a wounded child. In fact, you may resent that you are expected to become a symbolic parent to your parent now. Adjustment two can help you with this.
Adjustment Two: Acknowledge unresolved feelings and let them go. It will be hard to adjust to caring for your parent, if you don’t acknowledge, to yourself, your mixed feelings toward him or her. I admire Jody P.’s awareness as to her mixed feelings and desire to get beyond them. If you deny mixed feelings toward your parent, they are apt to come out in destructive ways. If your parent is physically and emotionally capable to have a meaningful dialogue about your feelings, you may wish to do this. You can choose to express your feelings through a letter too, which is a nice way to open up a dialogue later. Verbalizing past resentment can give your parent a chance to explain what was going on for him or her at the time. You may learn things about your parent that you never knew. But, mostly, you give yourself a chance to heal. Now, it will be much easier to make a transition from daughter or son to your parent’s caregiver.
Adjustment Three: Accept what is. You have to accept your current circumstance. The expectation that you have for how your life should have looked like, versus what it is right now, can increase the intensity of your emotional conflict toward your role as a caregiver. Most of us imagine our middle age and senior years to be uncomplicated, stress-free, and a time when life is really about us. It’s a time of enjoying whatever and whomever we love and whenever we want to enjoy them. If you cling to a fixed image of what your life should look like that poorly resembles what you have on hand, it will be hard to make the psychological transition that you need to be happy in your role as a caregiver. Accept what is on hand, and open yourself to new meanings about being your parent’s caregiver, like a chance to know your parent better, to give back to them what they gave to you, and to share more time with them while they are on this earth. Remember, the meaning you give to being a caregiver affects how you feel about the caregiving role.
Change Your Mind and Heart; Change Your Caregiving Experience
As I was writing this article, I got in touch with how vital the ability to care is to the human psyche. I was walking my dogs the other day in an outside shopping center, when I saw a young girl, around 5 years of age, pushing a stroller with her infant sister in it. Her forehead barely reached the stroller’s handle that she was energetically pushing forward. Her parents were just a few feet behind, letting the young girl try on the role as her sister’s caregiver. I was touched by the cycle of a family’s life when it comes to caring. We care, to grow our children into caring adults, and in turn, they become caregivers to us. Former First Lady Rosalyn Carter understood this meaningful aspect of the human experience.
Remember, life doesn’t have to become more restrictive or less enjoyable, because you have taken on the role as a caregiver to your parent. Caregiving your parent can be a time of greater intimacy that you will treasure forever.
If you like my post today, please let me know by selecting the Like button that immediately follows. I welcome your thoughts and comments. Warm regards, Deborah.
Note: The Image in this Post is from Oprah.com.