The Aftermath of Long-Term Caregiving: Is Stress the New Normal?
Often long-term caregivers wonder if their lives will ever return to normal. The short answer is no; at least for most of us. There will be changes in your personality, both positive and negative, so what you view as normal will change.
Each day as a caregiver (to some degree) hinges on the health and welfare of our care receivers. After months or years of caregiving, stress can become a daily companion.
I believe caregivers often recognize one or more triggers that symbolize this stress.
For me it was the blinking message light on the home phone. Though the multiple elders I cared for are now deceased, to this day I rarely consider the fact that that an unexpected phone call or a message on my answering machine could possibly signal anything other than troubling news.
How the telephone became my enemy
Once my dad had moved to a nearby nursing home because of a failed brain surgery and Mom was still living in their apartment, it seemed that every time the phone rang past 5:00 p.m. there was trouble somewhere.
Sometimes the call was from the nursing home because of a problem Dad had. Occasionally, it was Mom just checking in. Too often, however, it was the dispatcher for mom's personal alarm system. This call meant that I'd need to dash over to Mom's to see what happened and send for 9-1-1, if necessary.
Mom's call generally went out because she'd fallen. Sometimes she was barely hurt. Other times there were more serious consequences. Whatever it was, I'd have to cope.
My panicked drives from my home to my mother's – too often during terrible weather, or so it seemed – loom large in my memory. Still, I was grateful that Mom could summon help.
After Mom moved to the nursing home, her calls were not so gratifying.
Mom had her own telephone in her room and she called me often. Since I spent significant time with her on a daily basis, all that was needed in the evening was for us to touch base. That, was perfectly okay. What was not okay was that she'd forget she'd just called and repeat the process multiple times each evening. Eventually, I'd have to stop answering the phone, knowing that the nursing home would notify me on my cell phone if there was an emergency.
I'd feel guilty ignoring Mom's fifth call of the evening, but I had to do it for self-preservation. Other caregivers have contacted me saying that they ignored repeat calls and they seem comforted when I tell them I did the same.
Guilt – even unearned guilt – loves company.
Finding a new normal
I believe caregiving changes us forever.
Much of the change is positive. We become more compassionate toward those who have physical and mental difficulties. We become more understanding when we see a person who is trying to cope in public with an unruly child or an adult who has dementia. We become larger people because we've experienced more difficulty.
We've gone the distance, doing what we can to improve another's life, and we are better for it.
The hard part can be letting go of a crisis state of mind even when it no longer relates to our new reality.
Yet, when we don't learn to let go of the stresses of caregiving once it's over, our physical and mental health may continue to suffer. Adjusting to a new – hopefully better – normal takes courage, insight and time.
For me, the road to normalcy meant trekking backward through my mind to keep alive memories of the times before my loved ones became so vulnerable.
I don't discount the many years of caregiving nor do I minimize their neediness. I try to give myself credit for a job well done even though I know that I was imperfect as a caregiver, because every caregiver is imperfect.
Slowly, the warm memories of my elders and what they were like as I was growing up have regained their proper perspective in my mind and heart.
These days, I think consciously of them less often, though I feel their spirits with me more. My new normal has brought me peace for the most part.
If the only thing I need to struggle with now is the still reflexive dread at the sight of the blinking telephone message light, then I'm very fortunate.
May you all find a new normal that celebrates your growth, yet allows you to lower the stress level that was so often your way of life while caregiving.
You'll never be who you were prior to caregiving, but would you want to be? You can leave a legacy through caregiving. And, though it may take time and some inner work, you should come to an acceptable normal where you can feel pride in your growth as a person and maintain a more relaxed attitude toward life.