I was recently with a woman who is ninety-seven. Her two children, who are both in their late seventies (and are not children anymore), along with her caregiver of five years, are providing her with beautiful care. They are doing all the work collaboratively, and while they are each doing it from a place of deep love for her, they are exhausted, physically and emotionally, and I have witnessed the toll it has taken on them.
The caregiver, whether family, friend, partner, or hired professional, does a whole lot more than most people know. They help with all the needs of someone who cannot do it for themselves, such as bathing, feeding, dressing, assisting to the bathroom if they are able, or cleaning up after them if they are not. A caregiver anticipates the needs of someone else who cannot care for themselves, making sure they are safe by staying at their bedside or walking alongside them if they are able to walk. And these are just a few of the things a caregiver does.
A caregiver puts aside their own needs to care for another, especially when this person is their partner or family member. Many times, they miss a meal or a shower, and will stop doing the things they used to love to do because there is no longer any time for that. Caregiver burnout is a very real thing.
The partner of the person in the bed, has two roles, partner and caregiver, and the lines between them can become blurry. They need our support the minute they take on that second role. And our role (because we have one too), is to reach out and offer them a break, or to make a meal, or pick up groceries. There are so many things we can do for them that won’t take up too much time or money. Imagine the difference you can make for them.
I was speaking with the son of this woman, a man in his late seventies, and he started to cry. I was letting him know that she was declining rather quickly, and she might only have hours to days, which I know he knew, but was not prepared to hear. He and his sister have been caring for their mom for several years, both moving into the home and putting aside their own needs to care for hers. This is a beautiful thing, of course, but it has a very serious downside. As he started to cry, I watched a grown man become a small child right before my eyes. I held him in my arms, and I reminded him how beautifully he has honored his mother. And I knew... the road ahead for him was going to be very difficult.
When she dies, which I believe will be very soon, he and his sister, and their hired caregiver, who has become family, will be hit hard. This is the time when they need support, but here lies the question… who cares for the caregiver?
The moment you start providing care for another human being, a bond is created, and you become emotionally connected and tied to this person. All the time you spend with them, caring for them, and focusing on their needs, the more you forget your own. YOU need care too and it is essential that you find a way to practice self-care and honor the needs of your own body. And when that time comes when you have to say goodbye to them, this loss will be big and your grief will be real, you cannot do this alone. Please reach out to someone, let them know you need support. Let them know you are having a tough time. Let them know you need to talk about it. And remember, sometimes it is the people closest to you that might not be able to fill that role for you… don’t take it personally, this is about them, not you. But do not give up reaching out for help and support.
If you know someone who is providing care for a loved one, or is doing this work professionally, check in with them often, ask them about the work they are doing, ask them if they need a break, or a walk, or a hug. Be there for them… they need you. Be their rock... with a heart.
“There are only four kinds of people in the world: Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.”
– Rosalyn Carter