The Gifts and Challenges of Caregiving

Dear Fellow Travelers,

When my husband got sicker, there was no denying that aside from work, he would be unable to contribute at home. There was no question, no need to talk it through. I had to step up and take responsibility — managing my job, a baby, my husband’s needs, and a household on my own with limited resources. This dynamic lasted for years. He was not aware of how much I tried to handle. When I started to deal with my health issues, I felt, as a strong and independent woman, that I could not and should not ask for help.  My health issues were minor in comparison to his. Over time, he started to heal more while my health issues lingered and resulted in difficulty getting around. This required me to clearly communicate what I needed help with, and it required my husband to hear me and meet my needs.

As you can imagine, this sounds easier than it was. Men and women are from different planets and have different ways of feeling, thinking, and communicating. On top of that, the dynamics in our household were constantly changing in response to a growing child and both of our jobs and health issues. My husband and I alternated between being a caregiver vs. needing a caregiver – sometimes even at the same time. These dynamic power shifts did not always go smoothly, causing friction and extra stress. At some points, we would talk patiently and transparently and find a compromise that would work for us all. At other times, we would say things that would hurt each other and would end up feeling regretful. We always aimed for the former, but to our frustration, we often ended up with the latter. 

Caregivers can be anyone who feels responsible, has the resources and time, and loves you –  spouse, parent, child, or friend. Caregiving may feel like a duty or obligation at times — if no one else is available to take on the responsibility,  if you feel it’s your turn (when caring for your parents), or if you’re stepping up because you’ve promised loyalty through thick and thin to your spouse. Some people seem to be more naturally skilled in anticipating another person’s needs and wants than others. Similarly, some of us are better at expressing our needs and wants. These two qualities are related – the more a person feels genuinely cared for, the more they are willing to ask for help. But even if caregiving does not come as naturally to a person, this skill can be fostered over time with love and patience  (Still, sometimes external support may be needed from professionals.)

Both the caregiver and care-recipient have their limits. Pushing beyond those may lead to exhaustion and conflict, in particular when stressed due to constant change or mismatched dynamics, for example:

  • Grief. Both parties may be in different stages of acceptance.
  • Autonomy. There is no manual. Every duo needs to make their own decisions about when to ask for help and when to give help without becoming too overbearing. Both of you may change your perspectives on loss of independence over time.
  • Self-centeredness. When we don’t feel well, we often need to focus on ourselves to get through the day. If the normal balance between giving and receiving is out of sync for a prolonged period of time, it can lead to guilt for the recipient and exhaustion/resentment for the giver.
  • Finances. When illness results in more money going out than in, this can cause major stress on every facet of one’s life. The caregiver may feel strained between finding ways to earn more money (which may require hiring help for home) versus doing it all alone.
  • Affection. When preoccupied with health issues, expressions of affection are not to be undervalued since they help to keep the bond strong and resilient. The ways in which you express your love for one another may need to be changed, because the illness may have changed your physical, functional, or emotional abilities. At times, it may also help for both parties to mingle with other person(s). Sometimes, even the kindness of strangers can be surprisingly helpful. (Beware, however, some strangers may not appreciate your vulnerable state because they cannot relate). 
  • Logistics. At times caregiving by a loved one may become too challenging for financial, physical, or emotional reasons. In these cases, it may help to talk with your providers to explore relevant sources of support, including but not limited to respite care, which allows the caregiver a chance to recharge. 

For the most part, every duo is unique. Both members of the duo need to make decisions and compromises that they feel respected by and at peace with to maintain the relationship. Please keep in mind that it usually is more like a marathon than a sprint. You are only human; give yourself permission to refuel. You cannot help another if you have nothing to give. Ideally, caregiving can be a win-win for both the caregiver and care-recipient. It’s good to feel that you have support and will be carried when needed. Similarly, being of help to someone provides meaning to our lives! 

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