Most people have not personally provided care for a loved one and therefore cannot fully understand everything that goes into being a family caregiver. While this role can provide many gratifying moments and opportunities, the truth is that it’s often intense, exhausting and worrisome. Being on-call around the clock is both physically and emotionally draining. As a result, a caregiver’s other relationships can easily fall by the wayside. Friendships are usually the first to suffer as caregiving causes a person’s priorities and availability to change.
In situations where caregivers and their care recipients live together, friends can feel like they are intruding during visits. They may also feel uncomfortable because they don’t know how to act when an ailing elder, especially one who is cognitively impaired, is present. There are countless reasons why friends may fall out of touch and stray from their routines together when one becomes a caregiver.
The bottom line is that this responsibility makes it nearly impossible to have a social life, and outsiders—even those closest to us—typically have a hard time understanding this fact. Eventually, friends stop extending invitations and shrugging off plans that are cancelled at the last minute. However, working together to achieve mutual understanding with true friends can help you both continue interacting with and supporting one another despite your changing circumstances.
When “Busy” Becomes a Way of Life
When caregivers and elders are living under the same roof, finding any amount of down time for other people and activities is a tremendous feat. But even those who don’t live with their care recipients have difficulty balancing their time. None of my elders lived in my home with me, but my friends knew how busy I was seeing to all their care needs. Sure, friends and colleagues would occasionally ask me how I was doing. I’d give them a short report, knowing that they really didn’t want to delve into the gritty details. They were basically being polite.
Sadly, this brief exchange of pleasantries became my default interaction with most of these people. Sometimes it seemed as if some of them no longer knew how to relate to me. Was it because they saw how rushed and exhausted I was and felt guilty that they still lived reasonably calm, structured lives? Or did they keep me at arm’s length out of fear that one day soon they could be in a situation like mine? Some friends and acquaintances even avoid interactions because they don’t wish to add to a caregiver’s burden or interrupt their obviously hectic schedule. Regardless of the specific reasons, my social life faded significantly.
Caregivers Play a Part in Their Own Isolation
This may be an unpopular opinion, but I do need to take a good deal of the responsibility for the distance that developed between my friends and me during my heaviest caregiving years. I increasingly turned down invitations when I was invited to go out or made excuses when they wanted to stop by. I was so busy trying to care for the needs of my children and multiple elders as well as keeping up with all the other demands of my life that I felt too exhausted to socialize when the opportunity presented itself.
Even in the calmest circumstances, I am the kind of person who needs plenty of alone time to recharge their batteries. While caregiving allowed me precious little of that me-time, I know I often used exhaustion as an excuse just to be free of obligations. Looking back, I don’t blame myself for being selfish with my time, but accepting even an occasional, low-key social opportunity could have done wonders for my morale.
Although I resisted invitations and social visits, I was still painfully aware of my isolation. I hear from many caregivers who feel equally as conflicted. I’ve given this issue a great deal of thought and decided that there are things I could have done differently for my own good and for the good of my loved ones as well.
Insights on Balancing Caregiving and Friendships
It’s true that everything seems utterly overwhelming when you’re deep in the trenches of providing care. You’re probably sleep deprived, scatterbrained and feeling like there’s never enough time in the day for all that must be done. It’s no wonder that nurturing friendships isn’t at the forefront of our minds!
But the truth is that we humans are social creatures. We find great meaning and pleasure in the connections that we forge with others. It’s crucial for our health to refrain from falling into self-imposed isolation. Sadly, it’s true that some friends and even family members fail to support or understand us when we need it most. And, yes, limiting interactions with selfish or critical friends is acceptable. In fact, it will help you focus on maintaining the right friendships that lift you up rather than bring you down.
It doesn’t matter if you tend to established friendships or seek out new ones, perhaps even with fellow caregivers. I simply urge you to make your relationships with people other than your care recipient a priority. The following insights are not meant to be absolute truths. Rather, they’re gentle reminders for family caregivers who are feeling lonesome and pulled in too many directions.
- Ask for more help with caregiving. I chose to carry the brunt of this burden because I knew the ropes well and hesitated to inconvenience anyone else. However, a few tasks taken off my plate could have given me more time to work with and a better ability to balance elder care, childcare, self-care and tending to friendships.
- Realize that self-care isn’t selfish. Sole caregivers especially must realize that their needs matter, too. Just because you take time away from providing care to do nothing, or even do something you genuinely enjoy, doesn’t mean you’re being uncaring or disloyal to your loved ones. I didn’t realize soon enough that the world would keep turning even if I skipped a visit to the nursing home or if my parents didn’t receive their mail the exact day it arrived.
- Make a reasonable effort to keep up with friends. The smallest gestures like emails, phone calls, or a quick lunch date or cup of coffee would have been very meaningful to both my friends and me. Even if I couldn’t spend a lot of time with them, I could have done a better job of demonstrating their importance to me. In turn, this consideration should be reciprocated by sincere, thoughtful friends.
Tips for Socializing as a Caregiver
My last few bits of advice may sound odd or patronizing, but, again, these are just gentle reminders. I confess that remaining capable of holding a conversation that didn’t focus on caregiving helped me keep friends at least on the periphery. I’ve talked with fellow caregivers who seem to have nothing to discuss but their care recipient and their endless responsibilities. During particularly tough times, I admit that I may have fallen into this category. But for the most part, I did make a point of having other topics of conversation on tap.
I suggest the following pointers for those who fear they are losing all contact with friends or even feel that interactions with colleagues have become awkward.
- Make an effort to follow the news. A quick skim of national and local headlines each day will give you fodder for conversations about things other than caregiving and burnout. If the news is too serious or depressing for you, look to sports, pop culture news or even celebrity gossip to inspire your small talk—whatever interests you.
- 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 only through Facebook or Pinterest. If you read books, continue doing so and discuss them with like-minded friends. Not only will these rewarding pastimes help you decompress, but they’re also an excellent basis for maintaining friendships and even forging new ones. Getting together with a friend to enjoy a hobby like playing cards or exercising is doubly beneficial.
- Make an effort to limit discussions about elder care when you are with non-caregivers. Respond to polite questions with succinct answers and then move to a topic that really interests your friends. Let’s face it, caregiving has become a huge part of your life, but those who haven’t been in your shoes can’t fully understand or appreciate your situation. And, to be honest, they won’t be able to until they’ve experienced it firsthand. If a friend genuinely asks how you and your family are faring, feel free to be honest with them. Just know that that they may not be able to relate, regardless of how concerned they are, and they may eventually lose interest. It’s best to keep the venting and heavy-duty elder care talk among fellow caregivers and veterans. They understand and will support you as you support them.
For most of us involved with intense caregiving, it’s not likely that we can maintain an active social life. Caregiving is a time in our lives when we must concentrate on the well-being of others. However, for our own well-being, we should at least do the bare minimum to maintain our outside friendships. The day will come when caregiving ends, and we will need our friends more than ever to help us acclimate to our new normal. If we take an interest in what our friends are doing and work to find common ground, then they are more likely to reciprocate, help us through this challenging stage, and still be around when our caregiving days are over.