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 Shoulder.com, 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 job in addition to providing care, 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."

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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 AgingCare.com 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…"