When my husband first received his cancer diagnosis, we played an unseemly game of predicting who would stay with us throughout our journey and who would be quick to run in the other direction. We were surprisingly wrong on many accounts. Plenty of other family caregivers I’ve spoken to have had similar experiences.
The truth is that there are some friendships that last a lifetime and others that are a product of a place and time and more transient in nature. Some relationships are based on companionship and similar interests and activities. Others reflect common values, life experiences and personalities. All of these relationships are important, but a major crisis will naturally separate out which individuals you can truly count on during difficult times. My husband’s diagnosis and my becoming a spousal caregiver effectively drew this line in the sand with our friends and family.
I Learned That Caregiver Support Comes in Many Forms
Sadly, there were many friends and acquaintances who faded away over the 15 years that I cared for my husband. There were those who stuck by us, though, and we were fortunate to have their unwavering support. The difficulty is that there are some things that are hard to grasp unless you’ve experienced them first-hand. The unique struggles involved in being a caregiver are nearly impossible to convey to people who have never walked this path before. To complicate things even further, being a spousal caregiver is very different from caring for one’s parents, grandparents or in-laws.
My closest friend happened to become a caregiver for her husband roughly a year before my own caregiving saga began. Throughout my caregiving journey, she was the one person I could share my deepest, most honest feelings with. I always knew she would “get it.” Unfortunately, our caregiving duties left us little time to provide much in the way of hands-on help for each other. We didn’t get together often, but we both knew there was always someone we could turn to for understanding and emotional support. She was my lifeline all those years.
Another friend I met several years after my husband became ill wasn’t comfortable with the emotional aspects of disability and loss. Everyone has their own limits that they must respect, and I accepted that. Although he was not a source of emotional support for me, he was always willing to do small handyman jobs or provide some other “boots on the ground” type of help here and there. I think his discomfort wound up being a good thing since it encouraged me to find other topics to discuss with him. Our conversations actually allowed me to take some respite time away from the worries and responsibilities of caregiving. While it may seem that some people are not willing or able to support you in the way you would want or expect, making your expectations flexible increases the likelihood that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Social Isolation Contributes to Caregiver Burnout
Isolation is a common complaint amongst family caregivers. Many of us feel that we shouldn’t be focused on our social lives when our loved ones are dealing with serious health problems, but loneliness is a potentially life-threatening issue.
Studies have shown that the quality and quantity of one’s social relationships are linked to mental and physical health outcomes, but the importance of social support is even greater for stressed and busy family caregivers. According to AARP’s Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 report, “Feelings of loneliness are associated with fairly strong feelings of stress and strain as well as decreased health for caregivers.” This report found that one out of five (21 percent) caregivers feels alone. Isolation contributes to caregiver burnout, which can result in depression, anxiety and a host of physical health problems like heart disease, sleep issues, diabetes and obesity.
How to Find Caregiver Support and Social Connections
Hopefully you were able to invest time and effort into forming and nurturing relationships before illness or aging took a toll on your social life. If not, it’s not too late. I encourage you to find the time and make the effort to connect with friends that fit with your current life circumstances. Too many family caregivers only socialize with their care recipients, which is not healthy for either party. If you can’t get away to meet with friends, invite them to visit you. Your brain and body will thank you, and you’re likely to be a better caregiver when your own needs are met.
Personally, I find that making new friends is easiest if you first identify some things you would like to do to enrich your life. Exercise is a great way to deal with stress and ensure you can survive the caregiving experience in your own right. Can you find a workout buddy or go to a yoga class or recreation center where you can meet new people? Even if you can only make time to work out outside the home once or twice a week, you might still meet someone who will provide friendship and support.
Is there a hobby you can pursue in a group setting? A creative outlet can reenergize you and give you a break from the same old cares and worries. Research options in your area and make time to attend as regularly as your schedule allows. There are meetup groups in most areas for almost every interest one can imagine. These are easy to attend on an irregular basis while still engaging with the group members and getting to know them over time.
Caregiver support groups are another good option for finding friends who understand your challenges and who may also have new ideas for solutions or workarounds. Online caregiver support groups are especially convenient, allowing busy caregivers to connect with one another at any time of day and from anywhere.
Don’t forget to provide for your spiritual needs while connecting with others as well. Perhaps a walk or hike with a friend in a nature area will refill your heart. Maybe you prefer attending church services or volunteering. Prioritize this important aspect of your health and well-being. Finding something that rejuvenates you, nurtures your soul and provides opportunities for social connection is the ultimate combination for self-care.
Helping Others Helps You
While caregiving may monopolize your life, don’t forget that the best way to have a good friend is to be a good friend. It’s likely your resources are already spread thin, so you may not be able to commit much to assisting others, but there are plenty of non-material ways to show you care. Simply listening to a friend’s problems may help both of you get to a better place and strengthen your bond.
Sources: Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316); Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 (https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/ppi/2020/05/full-report-caregiving-in-the-united-states.doi.10.26419-2Fppi.00103.001.pdf); Caregiver Burnout: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention (https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9225-caregiver-burnout)