Looking Back: My Caregiving Experience in Retrospect
Why is life so much clearer in retrospect? With the passage of time, it is easy to look back, see the big picture and think: If I’d only known then, what I know now.
I often hear caregivers voice this sentiment. And, as a long-time Alzheimer’s caregiver myself (for my mother, father and other relatives, now all deceased), I feel the same way. In the rearview mirror, the decisions and choices that I agonized over at the time now either seem so obvious or so trivial. I wish I’d not been so caught up in details that were unimportant.
What is important, as a caregiver, is to treat the person you care for and yourself with dignity, empathy and compassion. Not everything will turn out how you want, but caregiving is not a perfect situation and you are not a superhero.
Even though no two caregiving journeys are exactly alike, I’ve put together a few takeaways you may find helpful. Please feel free to leave comments with your own ideas that may be helpful to others:
1. Caregiving is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
The most effective caregivers learn to pace themselves, so they avoid their own physical and mental burnout. Caregivers need to be resilient as the journey can sometimes go on for many years. Taking time to recharge your own well-being is the only way to withstand an extended caregiving experience. Part of the recharging is learning it is okay to ask for help and to accept any assistance offered by others. Keep in mind that you must keep yourself healthy – both physically and mentally – in order to be an effective caregiver.
2. Adjust to an Ever-Changing Situation
Most illnesses, especially Alzheimer’s disease, are progressive which means abilities ebb away over time. For many patients, what was successful one day may not work the next. When this happens, it is important to not take these changes personally and remember the goal is to meet the person at their current level of function. The caregiver has to remain flexible to these changing capabilities and interests.
3. Good Enough Can Really Be Good Enough
I tend to lean toward perfectionism. However, it became apparent that if I clung to perfection, I'd spend all of my time trying to reach this unattainable goal. What a waste of time and energy! Instead, I decided to let go of flawless and concentrate on living in the moment, however imperfect.
4. Look Deep and Find the Joy
When an individual is immersed in caregiving, there can be feelings of anger and sadness. While it is perfectly natural to experience these emotions, there can also be a tremendous amount of joy and laughter in caregiving – often at the most unexpected times. The key is to remain open to these moments so you can feel the happiness. It can be as simple as a smile, a touch or shared laughter or it might be a glimpse of clarity from a person with Alzheimer’s who is in an advanced stage of the disease. Either way, these small events are touching and can help sustain you during your caregiving.
5. Talk is Always Good for the Soul
Bottled up, unresolved feelings can make for a resentful caregiver. If left unchecked, these feelings can even make a person sick. It’s important to find friends or family who will listen, understand and not pass judgment.
Support groups are also an incredible lifeline to help you navigate caregiving and I highly recommend joining one. In fact, support groups can connect you with valuable resources and services that you may not know about. Best of all, you will connect with other individuals, like yourself, who are also caregivers. You may be surprised how much you will benefit from relationships with others who are traveling a similar path. There are several different support groups and services available in your community. Contact the Wilder Foundation’s Caregiver Services to find a support group near you.
These are things that I’ve learned from my caregiving experience…what have you learned from yours?
Nancy Wurtzel is a public relations professional and creative writer. A Minnesota native, Nancy relocated to California following college and lived in the Los Angeles area for more than 33 years. In 2011, she returned to her home state to care for her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease. Now living in St. Louis Park, Nancy pens Dating Dementia, a personal blog about making big changes at midlife.