Caregivers, the Unsung Heroes
November is National Family Caregivers month. I would like to take this moment to express a tremendous amount of gratitude to all those who have found themselves in this role at one time or another due to unfortunate circumstances.
Being a caregiver is one of the most loving and self-less acts a person can do. It’s also one of the most heart-wrenching and, at times, exhausting role a person will ever have to endure.
I am torn in writing this post. I want to acknowledge caregivers: give thanks for all they do, sing their praises and classify them as unsung heroes.
However, being in the role of caregiver when Larry was sick, I know I did it without expecting, or even wanting, any recognition at all. And I certainly wouldn’t have thought of myself as an unsung hero.
For me, the real hero was Larry. He was the one who had to endure the poking and prodding, the multiple tests, transfusions and chemotherapy, all the while knowing his fate was out of his hands. If he could endure all that, then certainly I could schedule appointments, deal with the insurance companies, administer antibiotics through his IV and spend as much time as I could with him every day in the hospital.
I didn’t do it because I wanted to have someone pat me on the back and say, “what a good wife you are.” No, I did it because I loved Larry more than ever. I would’ve walked over hot coals if it would have made a difference in his illness. Although I had loved him for many years already, I never really knew what true love meant until I had to watch my husband fight for his life.
I know there are many caregivers who feel the same way. Whether it’s taking care of a sick child, spouse, parent, friend or relative, there is no glory in watching an illness consume a loved one.
So, what does it really mean to be a caregiver?
As a caregiver you may be asked to assume a variety of roles- maid, cook, chauffeur, personal assistant, cheerleader, therapist and nurse- all rolled into one. The sicker a loved one is, the more demanding he or she is of a caregiver’s time and the higher the amount of anxiety and stress is involved.
Larry’s illness advanced quickly, and he died six months after he received his diagnosis. While my time as his caregiver was relatively short, I know there are many of you who have been in this role for years. And honestly, I know it can take its toll.
That’s why it’s so important to give caregivers recognition (even if they don’t want it!) and it’s equally important for caregivers to learn to take care of themselves. With a long-term illness such as cancer or Alzheimer’s it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and if you don’t stop to replenish your strength along the way you won’t be able to care for your loved one.
Below are some tips for caregivers:
- Seek support from a counselor, clergy or trusted friend. You will face many emotions: fear, sadness, anger, etc. that need to be expressed in a safe environment without judgement.
- Carve some quiet time out of your day just for you. After I took the kids to school and made Larry breakfast I would take a walk by myself to pray and help relieve the anxiety I was feeling.
- Ask for (or accept) help. If a friend offers to pick up medications or go to the grocery store for you, by all means say yes!
- Eat a nutrient-rich diet. Elevated stress can lead to a quick depletion of vitamins and minerals.
- If children are involved, set up routine times to spend with them. When Larry was in the hospital I came home by 6:30 p.m. during the week to eat dinner with the boys and help put them to bed. On the weekend, I flipped my schedule and spent the day with the boys and dinner with Larry. (Many thanks to my mother who moved in with me to take care of the boys so I could be with Larry.)
- Go easy on yourself. A setback or recurrence of an illness can feel like a personal defeat. A common thought is always “Could I have done more?” Remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can. Because you are.
- Laugh! The heartache a caregiver endures is a heavy load to carry. Laughter can be an avenue to lighten the load. Watch a funny movie or go see a comedy show. Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. And in case you may feel guilty about this, remember from a previous post, “It’s OK to Laugh.”
While I hope no one ends up in the role of caregiver, the reality is that at one point or another in your life you most likely will.
If, and when you do, I pray you’re given the strength to face each day with love and support from other people in your life.