That's what I used to think when people complained about taking care of someone who was sick. I used to think that they were being selfish; after all, it wasn't about THEM, it was about the person who was sick. THEY were the ones who needed the attention; they were the ones who were suffering. I knew a man, a very well-educated, caring man, who complained about himself when he had to see his wife of many years through many different surgeries that seemed to crop up year after year. He spoke of his many trips back and forth to the hospital; he spoke of how it was affecting his routine, his sleep, his health. And I used to barely acknowledge these complaints, because I became, well, almost angry that he dare think about himself...
Until I was put in the role of being a caregiver following my husband's hip replacement and subsequent dislocations and need for a surgical revision.
Now, I'm not saying I'd abandon my spouse (which was the topic of a recent blog post of mine), but it wasn't until I was on the other side that I realized this man's complaints were well within reason.
I happen to be a bit less verbal (and cautious, I guess) about saying anything about myself in this circumstance, feeling at times both guilty and burned out. But I'm at the point now that I can state this: being a caregiver does take its toll on the caregiver. It's not only stressful to watch a person you love suffer, it's also physically and mentally challenging to arrange trips back and forth to the hospital (which in my case is about 50 miles away), field phone calls from well-wishers, be a healthcare advocate (this includes being "firm" with nurses and other over-worked medical personnnel - not a strength of mine), take on responsibilities that you normally would split; virtually, add a full time job.
Caregiving was easy when my children were small; to me it wasn't caregiving per se, but a much more natural and organic process. Caregiving is something I always thought I'd have to do for an aging parent; yet now I'm in the role of one, not for a parent but for my spouse.
I never gave it a thought until people started phoning me and leaving messages asking how my husband was doing, ending the brief message with a sort-of P.S.: "And how are YOU doing?" or "Make sure you take care of yourSELF." I realize now that it is not only acceptable but appropriate to be thinking about yourself while taking care of another. And that should be done GUILT FREE.
One other thing I've learned through this new experience that I have to get better at asking for or accepting help. That's something that is so very hard for me. I've turned to my two sons to help with grocery shopping, hospital visits and returning phone calls to family. I've accepted help from close friends who have brought over dinners or offered to come to the hospital and sit with me or take care of my dog. It's still impossible for me to reach out and actually ask for what I need (sure, I'm comfortable with that with my own children, but that's about it), yet I do realize that there are many times in life that it's not only important but desirable to ask for help. People actually like to be helpful. They like to be needed.
Today, I took my husband's recommendation to stay home and get some things done instead of visiting him at the hospital. I must admit that I did feel a pang of guilt when I spent almost two hours at the gym. But once I got back home and set out to catch up on all my work that I had neglected last week, I approached it with a newfound vigor and energy. I haven't yet booked that massage that people keep suggesting, though. Maybe that's next.
What's your experience with caregiving? Have you been in that role? How have you dealt with its demands?
For more, read healthywomen.org's What it means to be a caregiver.