Caring for the Caregiver

What an unfortunate end to a terrific week at the lake, with all our kids and grandsons, celebrating my husband’s birthday. During one final swim, he slipped on the dock, had to have surgery on a fracture through the knee joint and is now only 10 days into an 8-12 week stint of no weight bearing. And yes, living in a 2nd floor walk-up, we’re both counting the days!

When we’re busy with our lives and moving along as usual we tend to feel bad for the injured and their caretakers but don’t really give much thought to the challenges they’re facing. As with so many other circumstances, it’s often through experience that we really know how it feels – and then access a depth of compassion.

So what’s it like for an active, strong willed risk taker to be rendered helpless and in the hands of the woman he’s been married to for 45 years? Well, it’s a new role for both of us and we’re trying to learn as we go. You can’t really be prepared for the unexpected but, as we age, we’re all vulnerable. So here are some pointers about what we’ve been doing to make our way through this rough period:

The beginning is the hardest. We take so much for granted. When your partner is incapacitated, the physical and emotional challenges can’t help but have a huge impact. And with a reversal of roles, while one may feel vulnerable and upset, the other’s emotions can fluctuate from fear to frustration. Yet eventually both can experience a deep sense of support and renewed strength as you draw on the coping strengths that helped you manage difficult times in the past.

What you’re feeling is normal. The emotions that surface can affect how you see yourselves, even on a temporary basis. Let the anger, exhaustion, resentment or guilt wash over you but don’t give in to them. Try to be hopeful as you adjust to the new reality. You’ll take better care of your emotional self if you don’t dwell on the negatives and begin to accept that this too will pass.

Care for the care-giver. Look on the bright side of a difficult situation as you balance caring for your partner and taking care of your own needs. Make time for yourself – take a long walk or yoga class, go back to volunteer work or grandbaby sitting, enjoy lunch or a movie with a friend. Recognize what you can manage and that you don’t have to do it all alone – and remember that it’s OK to ask for help.

Focus on what you can accomplish, not what you can’t.  When your wellbeing is compromised, it’s hard to feel at risk and dependent especially if you’re someone who’s used to doing everything for everybody. Give yourself an emotional break and recognize the treasures that are an integral part of you. Honor your body by exercising, eating and sleeping patterns that make you feel better. Minimize the situations that cause stress while increasing the ones that give you pleasure.

Find ways to lift your spirits. Call on your inner strength, wisdom and past experiences. Turn to your religious faith or spiritual practice that gives you comfort. Sit outside, enjoy the sun and get your daily dose of vitamin C. Take a nap or two and don’t feel guilty about it. Connect often by having friends and family come over and visit. You can create rituals that give you peace of mind and help you relax – journaling, meditation, inward focus, deep breathing.

Build resilience. Although we can’t prevent what happens to us, we can have some control over how we handle it. Work on changing your mindset. If you reframe your negative thoughts into neutral or positive ones, you can turn anxiety into energy. Release tension through laughter – watch a sitcom, tell jokes, see a funny movie – and you’ll begin to bounce back. Look for the lessons in what you’re going through because a good attitude can make a difference in how you navigate your present situation.

All of our thoughts are mental products although they don’t necessarily reflect an absolute reality. However, they do represent how we feel. And there’s no way around how we feel about the challenges of coping with health issues. Be patient and hang in there. The very act of putting one foot in front of the other can lead to a new perspective. Gaining strength from adversity is called post traumatic growth. This crisis may even lead you to feeling more empathy for others and a greater appreciation of what you have.

Despite the strain you’re going through, you will find hope. Relish your small feats and set goals for the future. Plan beyond the present and use my husband as a role model. He’s making the most of what he calls house arrest and already mapping out our next vacation.

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