When my mother moved in with us, I stumbled into the role of an Alzheimer’s caregiver with zero experience.
Not long afterward, these scary, life-altering words were pronounced to my husband, Gary: “It’s cancer.” And just like that, a double assignment was handed to me.
Caring for an aging, disabled, or terminally ill family member isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s a hard and holy calling, requiring sacrifice, courage, and inconvenience. But there’s hidden and profound reward.
An online Focus on the Family article reports:“Most caregivers have not planned for the role, and although many accept it with grace … most do not feel prepared to address the many issues ahead of them.”
Which means if you’ve unexpectedly become the primary attendant for a loved one, and you feel overwhelmed, you’re not alone.
If this describes you, consider these five strategies for supercharging your caregiving batteries:
1. Practice self-care
A friend asked if she could give my phone number to her cousin, Michelle. Michelle’s husband was recently diagnosed with late-stage cancer; they have an eight-year-old daughter, Olivia; and Michelle is dealing with some serious health issues of her own.
When I asked Michelle what she was doing about taking care of herself, it didn’t surprise me that she said, “Self-care feels selfish.”
But it’s not. Self-care is simply replenishing body, soul, and spirit so we have reserve to pour into the lives of others.
Self-care is as simple and inexpensive as taking a walk in nature, sitting leisurely with a book in a coffee shop, planting a small container of herbs for your kitchen window, or hosting a classic movie night with a couple of girlfriends. Check out 43 effective self-care tips from an earlier blog.
This reminder from Eleanor Brownn (with two “n’s”):
We cannot serve from an empty vessel.
2. Plug into community
Even though she has family support and a great group of girlfriends, Michelle said she doesn’t really have anyone to talk with who’s been in her role: “There’s no one in my family who knows how hard it is.”
Community is critical. We weren’t designed to do life alone. And when our community includes people who have walked a similar journey as our own, you can imagine the comfort in hearing words like: I get it … or, I experienced that same thing … or, Here’s what I did that helped me.
3. Seek to understand the patient’s perspective
If we’re a team – caree and caregiver – it helps to understand what causes anxiety in our loved one, which ultimately lessens our own anxiety.
Michelle’s husband is wrestling with the issues that accompany a terminal diagnosis and the financial pressure of not being able to work full-time. These factors infuse distress in a husband who knows he’ll be leaving his wife and daughter to make their own way in the world.
And he’s dealing with this the way the majority of men would: By keeping most of his thoughts to himself.
A year ago, I wrote a piece about reticent men and cancer that highlights some of the things men struggle with. Simply because they’re men.
When my husband was diagnosed with late-stage prostate cancer, the treatment of choice was hormone therapy—designed to slow down cancer cell growth by staunching testosterone—which meant softened muscles, emotional ups and downs, loss of libido.
“I think it’s great we’re going through menopause together,” I said, probably a little too perky.
Gary withdrew. He simply shut down his words and affections. Paired with strained finances and the care for my mother, it was an overwhelmingly bleak season.
In time, my husband opened up and helped me understand why he felt like a failure as a man. I had no idea he was lugging this heavy weight around; this was something I could help him carry.
Meanwhile, Michelle is pouring encouragement and love into her husband’s life, endeavoring to understand the male perspective of what he’s dealing with. “I’m trying to show him through my actions that no matter what, I’m there for him.”
4. Create family time and memories
Michelle is most worried about their daughter, Olivia: “She’s very intuitive. She reads people’s faces and understands adult things.”
Olivia hasn’t been sleeping well. She admitted to her mom that every time she goes to bed at night, she’s afraid her daddy won’t wake up in the morning.
“It breaks my heart,” said Michelle. “She’s just eight. I’m still not over my dad dying, and I was thirty at the time.”
Michelle said they’re planning a weeklong get-away at a friend’s cabin on a lake. She’s looking forward to simply being together as a family away from the cares of home.
In our case, after Gary processed all the negative debris that accompanies a terminal diagnosis, we decided to live while he still had life. As a result, there are movie reels playing in my head of road trips through national parks, hiking tall mountain trails, running from Pacific waves. And nothing can erase those gleeful memories.
5. Lean into faith
Michelle said that her faith is sustaining her. “God is not allowing me to go through this for no reason.”
Looking back, I see God’s fingerprints on every hard thing Gary and I experienced.
Had my husband not been unemployed, for example, had I not given up work at a non-profit for a job with good pay and healthcare benefits, had I not ended up on staff at St. Charles Cancer Center, then we wouldn’t have had such a fiercely supportive and loving group of people standing beside us on the frontlines of cancer.
And that was just one small piece of the goodness God brought about during our wilderness. Nothing is wasted in His economy.
One final thought …
Michelle realizes she has no control over her husband’s diagnosis, her own health issues, her daughter’s fears, or their strained finances. “But what I can control is how I react, and how I’m showing Olivia how to care for someone, and how I’m being compassionate.”
Michelle is wise and overwhelmed, and scared and brave. All at the same time.
A word to the wise, to the heroic, to the caregivers: Don’t try to go it alone. Let others love on you, take care of yourselves, and lean into the strong arms of God as you travel this challenging and sacred journey.
P.S. If you know someone who is carrying a heavy caregiving load alone, please share, tweet or pin!