Happy New Year! In 2017 I spoke to so many working daughters who put their own lives on hold to care for their aging parents. It’s a noble move, but a limiting one. To be sure, I know first hand how difficult it is to have a life when you are in the throes of eldercare, but you must.
Maybe that life doesn’t look like what it had. Almost certainly it doesn’t look like anything you ever imagined. (No one plays pretend caregiver when they are kids.) But it is the only life you have. And the reason it’s so important to maintain, it is that caregiving eventually ends. And if you don’t maintain some semblance of a life during caregiving, where will you be when you arrive on the other side? (Think of your empty nester friends who lost themselves to parenthood only to feel lost when their kids grew up.)
Studies have shown that there is indeed a caregiver’s gain, an upside to caregiving – it can make you both physically and emotionally stronger. Those most likely to experience that gain are those who accept their circumstances and maintain their own lives.
Or maybe, caregiving never ends for you. Someone once told me there are no former caregivers because we continue to care for others by passing along the knowledge we gain. If that is your perspective, you still need to maintain some parts of your life during caregiving in order to continue to be of service.
So, as we wind down 2017, a time to make New Year’s resolutions for 2018, why not resolve to get a life? (Or maintain the life you do have?) Read on to learn 4 critical steps to having a life while caring for someone else.
- Practice acceptance. The first step is always acceptance. Accept that where you are is where you are. One of the most dangerous things you can do in life – as a caregiver, or in any situation – is wait until.. .wait until things get better, until someone heals, until work slows down, until you get thinner, until you find the perfect partner. Your life is now, not when some future event happens. So how do you choose to live this life?
- Banish magical thinking. Along the same lines of accepting, give up any magical thinking you may be unconsciously practicing. What is magical thinking? It’s thinking that you are going to be rescued, that the diagnosis was incorrect, that your parent is just forgetful – nothing more serious, that work will get easier, that your siblings will start helping out. The sooner you acknowledge your reality, the sooner you can improve upon it.
- Plan for the other side. Thinking about the other side of caregiving makes us feel guilty because we know what it means when the people we care for no longer need us – it’s not usually a good thing. But caregiving does end and smart caregivers think about what they want to have in place when that happens. Your life might not look like it did pre-caregiving, but what can it look like? What do you need to do during the caregiving phase to have that life in place? Will you want to rebuild your career? Then you need to keep your foot on the gas pedal at work. Will you want to rekindle your non-caregiving relationships? Then you need to continue to invest some time with the people that matter most even while attending to the person you care for. Will you want to be healthy? Then carve out some time for sleep, exercise, and eating well now. Thinking about what you want for the future will guide you through your caregiving experience. If you focus on your goals for the future, you will make time for your life in the present.
- Value what you have. And perhaps most important of all, remember that your life is as important as the life of the person you care for. Why is it that we so often don’t prioritize someone’s needs until that person is in crisis? Your life doesn’t need to crumble in order for you to value it. Your life is as valuable as the life of the person you care for. What can you do to honor both the person you care for and the caregiver (that’s you!)?
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