Unless a person has experienced caregiving as a part of daily life, they have very little understanding of what it means to be a caregiver. The reality of elder care, while it has many gratifying moments, is that it's intense, often exhausting, and frequently worrisome. The feeling of being on call 24-hours-a-day is wearing to the extreme. As a result, long-standing traditions with friends coming for dinner or nights out on the town often go by the wayside.
In situations where an aging parent lives with the caregiver, friends can feel like they are intruders. Also, they may feel uncomfortable because they don't know how to act when an ailing elder, especially an elder who is cognitively compromised, is present. In any event, the resident parent is often seen as a barrier to the intimacy of "old times," and friends may stop coming around.
Even when elders don't live with us they are still present
We needn't have our loved ones living with us to find our friends have floated off into the ether. None of my elders lived in my home with me but my friends knew how busy I was with all of my elders' care needs. Friends and colleagues would ask me how I was doing and I'd give them a short report, knowing that they really didn't want to know the lengthy details. They were basically being polite.
Sometimes it seemed some of them no longer knew how to relate to me. Was it guilt because they saw how rushed I was and they still lived reasonably controlled lives? Or was it fear that one day soon they could be in a situation similar to mine? Whatever the reason, my social life faded.
We often play a part in our own isolation
I do need to take a good deal of the responsibility for the distance between my friends and me during my heaviest caregiving years. I found that I increasingly turned down invitations when I was invited to go out or made excuses when they wanted to stop over. I was so busy trying to care for the needs of my children and multiple elders, plus keep up with all of the other demands of my life, that I was too exhausted to want to socialize. Since at the best of times I have a need for substantial time alone in order to recharge my batteries, and caregiving allowed me precious little of that time, I know I often used exhaustion as an excuse just to be free of obligations.
I was still aware of being isolated, though, and I hear from many caregivers who feel the same way. I've given substantial thought to the issue and have decided that there are things that I could have done differently for my own good, and perhaps for the good of my loved ones.
- I could have asked a family member to handle a few of my eldercare duties even though it would have inconvenienced him or her.
- I could have realized that once my elders were getting care in a nursing home, I was not being disloyal if I skipped a day of visiting or if they didn't have their mail for one day.
- I could have made more of an effort to keep up with friends through phone calls or a lunch date, even if I couldn't spend a lot of time with them.
Remaining capable of holding a conversation that didn't include caregiving helped me keep friends at least on the periphery. I've talked with caregivers who seem to have no other subject of conversation, and I'll admit that during extra tough times I may have fallen into that category. But for the most part, I did try to have other topics of conversation on tap. For those who fear they are losing all contact with friends, I'd suggest:
- Making an effort to follow the news, both national and local, so that you have some subjects that you can discuss other than caregiving and your burnout.
- Try to maintain at least one hobby. If you play a musical instrument, try to keep a hand in music in some way. If you knit, try to stay up with current jargon on knitting projects even if it's through Facebook or Pinterest. If you read books, continue doing so and discuss them with like-minded friends.
- Make an effort to keep eldercare talk as brief as possible when you are with non-caregivers. Answer polite questions with quick, to-the-point answers, then move to a topic that really interests your friend. Keep the heavy-duty caregiving talk for a time when you have other caregivers. They understand and will support you as you support them. With a common group, caregiving talk is cathartic.
For most of us involved with intense caregiving, it's not likely that we can keep up a roaring social life, as well. Caregiving is a time in our lives when we are concentrating on the wellbeing of others. However, for our own wellbeing, we should do at least minimal upkeep on outside friendships. The day will likely come when our caregiving ends. We will need our friends more than ever at that time. If we take an interest in what our friends are doing they are more likely to be around when our caregiving days are over.