More Than a Caregiver: Re-Define Your Role, Reclaim Your Identity


Who are you?

Three words; so simple to read, so difficult to understand. People spend decades trying to respond to this question before they eventually realize that it's unanswerable—who we are is always changing.

So we come up with a stopgap. We describe ourselves by pointing to the most prominent role we play at any given point in time. For people taking care of an elderly loved one, this role is often caregiver.

This way of thinking, while convenient, has its drawbacks. It doesn't take long to feel pigeon-holed, trapped within the narrow confines of the very definitions we helped create. Because it can be an all-consuming role, it's easy for caregivers to feel as if that's all they are. It's hard for them to envision an identity—a life—beyond caregiving.

"People are fluid," says Janice Taylor, author, columnist and life coach for Virtual, and we need to start seeing ourselves that way. "We are not defined by one role," she says, "We think of ourselves as nouns—but we are really verbs. We are beings."

Caregiving: a verb, not a definition

It should be easy for a caregiver to see themselves as a verb—they're always doing something.

People taking care of an older relative constantly bounce between dozens of daily tasks: driving parents to doctor's appointments, cooking dinner, working a day job, making sure a loved one takes the pills.

A caregiver herself, Taylor talks about how exhausting it can be just to make simple daily decisions for her mother. What she should eat for dinner? Which of her outfits should be kept and which should be thrown away?

When faced with this never-ending series of tasks, a person's sense of self is often the first thing that gets sacrificed.

She knows how difficult it can be for people taking care for elderly parents to connect with their true selves. "Society tells you what you're supposed to do and how you're supposed to feel," she says, "We're bad people if we don't drive ourselves mad and go deeply into caregiving."

The wisdom in cliché advice

Set boundaries, put on your own oxygen mask first, ask for help.

These statements form the basis of the informal caregiver creed. They also highlight the vital importance of staying true to yourself while taking care of another human being.

Before you can set meaningful boundaries with a loved one, you must decide how much you're willing to give. Before you can ask others for help, you must first be able to recognize (and accept) that you've reached the end of your proverbial rope.

"It's okay to express that you're completely overwhelmed," Taylor says, "You need to define your role as a caregiver and know how much you're comfortable with based on your own sense of self."

Know yourself. Know your feelings and your limits and don't be afraid to voice them.

Portrait of a whole person

How do you temporarily subtract caregiver from your resume and tap into the person you really are?

It can be tricky, particularly if you've been looking after a loved one for years, but Taylor offers some advice for re-connecting with and getting to know your true self:

  • Engage your core: No, it's not an argument for taking an extra Pilates class. An important part of the re-definition process is thinking about your core set of inner resources. Define yourself by the things you like to do. For example, you may be a creative person who enjoys writing, singing and practicing yoga. You may also be a wife, mother and a daughter who's taking care of her elderly mother but, as Taylor points out, those labels describe your relationship to other people, not your relationship with yourself.
  • Talk about yourself: It may sound unusual, but engaging in some third-person self-talk can help you come up with alternative definitions of who you are. For example, you could say to yourself, "(Your name) is a quilter, attorney, and unabashed romance novel nerd." Taylor says this method creates a sense of inner spaciousness and freedom that may clear your head and help you plug into your true self. "It puts you in a place where your mind isn't hijacked by what's going on, where you're more than your thoughts," she says.
  • Connect under the covers: Re-tooling your self-definition doesn't mean that you have to spend hours sitting alone, meditating on the mysteries of life. Taylor suggests taking a few minutes right after you wake up to connect with your inner being. "Remember who you are before you get out of bed," she says.
  • Talk to strangers: There's perhaps no better way to re-invent yourself than by being around people you've never met before. Look for groups and clubs in your area that are focused on things you're interested in. That way, you can explore a personal passion while introducing yourself to people who have no pre-conceived opinions about who you are. They won't know you're carrying a car full of caregiver baggage unless you tell them. Which can offer a refreshing change of pace if your day-to-day interactions constantly seem to revolve around one question: "How's mom doing today?"
  • Set some goals: Most people shelve their own ambitions once they start looking after their elderly loved ones. But, setting personal goals can be a great way to explore and re-ignite your passions. According to Taylor, the most important thing about goal setting is consistency. Take ten minutes a day to work towards your target, whether it's writing the next great American mystery novel or growing an herb garden in your backyard.

"We are fighters…"

We asked the members of the community to weigh in on the topic of self-definition with their perspectives and advice.

Here's how some of them would answer the question: Who are you?

  • Only1of3 (or "Gramarley" to her young grandson) is a grandmother, girlfriend, mother, sister, friend, and widow who understands that, no matter what age you are, you're never done being a student.
  • LaurieBenson is a yoga teacher and herbalist who enjoys volunteering and lending others a listening ear.
  • PCVS is a dancer, painter, and bead weaver, who has a Master's degree in astrophysics.
  • Burnedcaringst is, "just an extraordinary woman labeled as a caregiver." She is also a mother, wife, writer, crafter, and teacher's aide.
  • Smitty is a writer and marketing assistant who competed in sales contests and composed several ads for a local magazine. She enjoys designing greeting cards and aspires to one day write and publish a devotional.

Member Only1of3 also believes there's one name that can be applied to anyone taking care of an elderly relative. "Most of all, I think that we are fighters," she says, "Fighting for those we care for, and for ourselves too, and our other loved ones, to do what is right today and to survive to fight another day."

Looking for more inspiration and advice to help you plug in to your true self while caring for a loved one? Check out the discussion: "More than just a caregiver…"

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Who am I? Good question. Well I USED to be a teacher until I resigned from that and moved cross country to care for my mother with PD with the misguided notion that I would find another teaching job near my mother. My mother quickly informed me that 'she needed me and what was she going to do if I got a teaching job" I told her that she would need to have help while I was at work. She was not happy to hear that but too bad. Well in a round about way she got her 'way". There are no teaching jobs and the ones that do exist -- let's just say they're looking for younger ones than myself to fill those positions. And since the economy sucks, there aren't even Wal-Mart greeter jobs available. I was unhappy -- but mom wasn't. Since I had no job or health insurance she graciously took care of that. But that's a double edged sword. Now whenever I make any noise about wanting to get a job or make movements outside this house I have been informed that it had better be a really good high paying job with benefits or it's not worth it (to mom that is ) for me to take it. So I used to define myself as a high school Social Studies teacher. Now I would describe myself as an Idiot who should have stayed where she was b/c that would have forced mom into first assisted living and then more skilled facility as her needs would demand that.and finally, I would still have a career and life. I think now my role in life is to be a guide to "DON"T DO WHAT I"VE DONE" BTW I'm still going to try and get something in the educ field or even a part time job somewhere and too bad if mom doesn't like it.
I think society leads us to define who we are by what roles we have which tends to be in terms of what we do, how much we earn and how much influence we have. I believe that we are more than just the sum of what we do. Otherwise, we are set up for a major identity crisis when our roles change. For example, a major role in my life was being a pastor. However, my health failed and I went on disability. This was a tough change and for some people, their disability becomes their identity. However, in my denomination, I'm still considered an ordained minister, but not an active pastor. Plus, what the Bible says about who I am in Christ has not changed for me as a Christian. Thus, I do have some constants in my life despite other changes. So, after some struggle and searching, I've discovered a second calling, a second ministry and a second life within the boundaries of what I can do. In my marriage, my wife and I are in the empty nest phase which I'm glad we prepared well for by keeping our relationship alive and thus this role change is not as overwhelming as it is for some people. I have an illness called bi-polar disorder, but I'm not bi-polar, I am a person with bi-polar. One of my roles is being the POA for my elderly mother who is in a nursing home, but that is only one of my roles which now does not take as much energy as it did at first when there were a lot of tax issues, ect. to deal with. Right now, my wife's health is not good. So, I am having to help her. However, I do carve out time for me and my current project is writing a book.
I am Andria, I am a professional Caregiver.
I have found myself......I know who I am.......
It took a long time but after my dad's death (Vascular Dementia) of which I was 0ne of his caregivers.....I found my self and established my connection to other seniors who need the same care that my dad needed.
I know myself because only now I feel a true sense of satisfaction from the results of caring wholeheartedly. It is true that there are moments when I take time away to collect myself.....i do this when I write......or when I explain care to other families who need information.
It fulfills me and I know that I was called to do this I know that I have found myself and I know who I truly am today.
I am the happy caregiver.