There’s no getting around it: being a family caregiver is bound to impact how you think and who you are as a person. Taking on this high-stress role that is both physically and mentally demanding can be transformative, especially when you consider that the average duration of caregiving is 4.5 years.
Some members of the Caregiver Forum worry that their personality changes are largely negative. Certainly, stress, exhaustion and overwhelming responsibilities can take a serious toll on one’s physical and mental health. Caregiver burnout is notorious for sneaking up on even the most organized and level-headed individual. But, if you learn to manage caregiver burden instead of letting it consume you, the risk of developing lasting negative traits like anxiety, depression and agitation is greatly reduced.
In fact, many proactive caregivers notice that they’ve developed some beneficial attributes and coping methods thanks to their experiences in elder care. How your personality might change throughout this journey depends, of course, on your unique attitude, your openness to change, the feelings you have for the person you are caring for, and the state of your own physical and mental health.
How Caregiving Affects Different Personality Types
The following examples illustrate how certain personality types can be transformed, both negatively and positively, by caregiving.
The Take-Charge Personality
For people who instinctively seek control in most situations, caregiving can either turn them into frustrated tyrants or help them mellow out.
It can be very easy to adopt a “do as I say” approach to communicating with aging parents or an ailing spouse. Even if your loved one still has their faculties, it’s usually less of a hassle for you to personally manage care tasks big and small compared to giving them the leeway to attempt these things themselves. After all, you know exactly what medications need to be taken and when. You know what the weather is like today, therefore it’s easier to just set out appropriate clothing for your loved one than let them pick their own outfit.
Handling these issues (and hundreds of others while caregiving) and not slipping into an overbearing or “parental” mode can be difficult for anyone. However, for family caregivers with Type A behavior pattern (TABP), the challenge can be monumental. These individuals are often highly organized, ambitious, extremely driven, impatient, overcommitted, and time-oriented. After all, trial-and-error takes up precious time and energy, and so does redoing simple tasks!
It’s helpful to remember that there’s likely no faster way to deplete the self-esteem of an ill or aging person than to micromanage them or boss them around. Therefore, it can be beneficial to consciously repeat the mantra that your care recipient is still a whole person. Their abilities may be reduced, but it is likely that they are still capable of some minor tasks. It’s important to encourage their participation and help them feel as if they still hold some control over their life, even if it is waning.
Of course, caregivers with take-charge personalities do not intend to come across as domineering or rude. They simply tend to focus on maximizing their time, money and energy—a characteristic that is very important in the hectic and unpredictable world of caregiving. But sometimes the quickest, easiest method of doing something is not always the best way. Remembering that empathy and dignity are more important than efficiency is crucial for caregivers to augment how they provide care.
Type A people may always meet their work deadlines and achieve their lofty goals, but caregiving is a very different type of challenge. There is no black and white definition of “success.” It does not end if you work extra hard at it. In fact, diligence and efficiency may have very little impact on your responsibilities, and it’s often impossible to predict how long they will last. Praise and recognition aren’t things that most family caregivers get a lot of either. Sure, some Type A qualities do lend themselves to caregiving. However, striving for perfection will only increase stress levels, accelerate the development of caregiver burnout and undermine care recipients.
No matter how much you love your care recipient, altering your thought processes can be very difficult. There are few rewards greater than taking time to respect the importance of this person’s life and keep this history in mind during your long, exhausting hours of caregiving. Succeeding in this may eventually dull the sharper edges of your strong personality, leaving your efficiency and determination intact, yet making you a more thoughtful and flexible team player, mate, friend and employee. It will also help you pick your battles when it comes to how certain tasks are handled and who can participate. The lesson may not come easily, but there is a great deal of freedom to be found in accepting that the world won’t end if every single thing isn’t done perfectly.
The Disorganized Personality
If you have an easygoing Type B personality and find yourself to be rather lax about organization, caregiving will likely force you to tweak your natural tendencies in a hurry. The unpredictable nature of elder care means that caregivers must achieve a balance of preparedness and flexibility. You may be able to take an ad hoc approach to managing your own finances, health care and day-to-day commitments, but adding another person’s care to the mix without creating some sort of system is asking for trouble.
Learning the basics of at least minimal organization will ensure you can quickly locate a complete medication list for your parent or spouse in an emergency, keep their bills paid on time, track all their appointments, etc. Doing so not only enables you to provide better care, but it can also prevent both small headaches and very costly mistakes (like missing a dose of medication or accidentally comingling finances in a way that affects Medicaid eligibility).
The best way to go about this is to devise a comprehensive care plan. If that seems intimidating, then start small. At the very least, create a folder or binder for important health records and receipts. You may be inclined to procrastinate, but the earlier you tackle these objectives, the better. Things can ramp up quickly and you don’t want to find yourself in a pinch, frantically searching for a misplaced financial power of attorney (POA) document, drowning in insurance paperwork, or second-guessing a doctor’s instructions for care.
The added benefit of having an organizational system in place is that it will make it easier and smoother for another family member or a professional caregiver to step in when you need a break. But it’s okay if you create a system that only you understand—as long as it works. When all the information you need is easily accessible, it can make even difficult decisions much less daunting.
Don’t worry. A bit more organization and time management won’t upend your appealing, laid-back personality. Although individuals with Type B personalities typically live with lower stress levels, introducing more order in your day-to-day life can prevent unnecessary strain and actually help you retain your go-with-the-flow attitude. Minor changes here and there will likely make your whole life run a little smoother both while caregiving and after your role ends. In fact, many previously disorganized caregivers have realized the importance of preparing for the future and created systems for their own records to ensure family members can easily access important documents in emergency situations. This is a precious gift that can minimize a great deal of stress and confusion for loved ones.
The Timid Personality
Someone who is naturally shy or avoids confrontation will probably have to learn to be more assertive when it comes to caregiving.
Reminding your parent that it’s time to use the bathroom or take their medication, especially if they tend to respond with complaining and negativity, can be tough for a person with a timid personality. It can also be difficult to spearhead a spouse’s care if they’ve always been the more dominant force in the relationship.
Learning to find your voice and advocate for a loved one is a scary concept, particularly because their well-being depends entirely on you. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the gravity of this responsibility, try to reframe how you think of it. Draw strength, motivation and courage from the fact that your care recipient needs your help. Not only will this enable you to better manage their care, but it will also allow you to be more assertive with them, medical professionals, social workers and other members of their care team.
Don’t be a shrinking violet. Have faith that you are up to the task. Practice makes perfect, so take baby steps with people who you feel most comfortable with. Your reticent personality allows others lots of room to be themselves and speak their minds, and that quality will remain. But, through caregiving, you will become a stronger, more confident version of yourself. This is a fundamental quality for advocating for yourself and on behalf of others who cannot speak up for themselves.
How My Personality Changed as a Caregiver
Did my decades of caring for multiple elders change me? Absolutely. While there are many difficult physical and emotional aspects of this role, there are also many rewards of being a family caregiver.
Each person’s journey and experiences are different, but I believe my experience made me stronger, more organized and a better advocate for vulnerable individuals. It enhanced my natural empathy for the problems others face. It showed me just how difficult life can be, even for the smartest, most talented person who may develop dementia or other illnesses. Caregiving helped me understand that one must look inside oneself for the mental fortitude to go the distance. However, it also taught me that knowing when to ask for help is a very important part of that process.
If you’re struggling with your responsibilities and the stress they cause, consider joining a caregiver support group or working with a mental health professional. Far too many caregivers find that they do not have the tools or the emotional endurance necessary to be sole caregivers over the long term, and that is okay. What isn’t okay is acknowledging that your attitude and outlook are changing for the worse yet failing to be proactive about remedying these changes. If you find yourself thinking “I don’t feel like myself anymore” or “I miss the old me,” then it’s time to act. It can be easy to lose yourself while in caregiving mode, and there is no guilt or shame in taking a break and working to reclaim the traits that make you who you are.
While some of the depth I’ve gained and the character development I’ve experienced over time could be chalked up to general maturity, I do believe that my years of caregiving have enhanced my overall perspective on life. For that opportunity, I remain grateful.