Life after caregiving
Empty nesting isn’t just for the parents of college students anymore. Caregiver empty nesting is an increasingly common occurrence that refers to the feelings a long-term caregiver experiences when the loved one is gone or no longer needs daily support.
Author and speaker Joni Aldrich has been there—more than once.
With the shift away from less personal and more expensive hospitals and long-term care facilities, millions of people are caregiving for loved ones in their homes for as little as several days to a decade or longer. It’s initially an adjustment to set the daily clock around the care receiver. Parts of the caregiver’s life must be put on hold, but soon the schedule as a caregiver becomes the new normal, and the caregiver begins to make and cherish new memories.
And then one day, whether your loved one is gone or simply no longer needs daily support, caregiving is no longer necessary. For many people, the transition back to “normal” life is unexpectedly difficult, especially if grief is added into the mix.
“When your ‘shift’ as a caregiver is over, loneliness, grief, and confusion may replace the feelings of being needed,” says Joni Aldrich, speaker and author of “Connecting through Compassion: Guidance for Family and Friends of a Brain Cancer Patient” (Cancer Lifeline Publications, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4515238-5-0, $15.95, www.connectingthroughcompassion.com). “Suddenly, you’re a caregiving empty nester. Things are too quiet. You’re not being pulled in three different directions…so what will you do now? How will you resume your regular life?”
“After my husband, Gordon, was diagnosed with cancer, I spent two years in heavy caregiving,” she said. “When he died in 2006, my world was upside down. Yes, I lost my spouse, but I also lost someone with whom I had been joined at the hip for two years as we battled his cancer through daily twists and turns. It wasn’t an easy time for either of us, but it was my privilege to help and support Gordon.”
Last year, Aldrich found herself in a similar situation when her 84-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer. Once again, she lost someone pivotal in her life after months of being that person’s primary support system.
“Caregiving is an odd mixture of worrying about the patient, appreciating your time with him, wondering what will happen next, and feeling guilty for missing your regular life,” said Aldrich. “The feelings I experienced when I began taking care of my mother were oh-so-familiar—knowing that your life will be turned upside down, but understanding that this is the greatest gift you can give to a loved one. That knowledge didn’t make it any easier when my mother died. After the oxygen machine was turned off, the silence was deafening. Everything had changed in that one moment in time, and that’s when I truly realized that you don’t have to have children leaving the house to suffer from empty nest syndrome.”
The fact is, caregiving does turn your life upside down—in some cases, you may have even given up your career and residence. Understandably, it can be hard to fill the emptiness that’s left behind once you are no longer devoting your time and energy to daily caregiving. As you pick yourself up and regain the foundation of your own life, here are Aldrich’s suggestions to help you feel better if you are a caregiving empty nester:
Give yourself some love. Caregivers are so used to taking care of others that it’s not uncommon for them to neglect themselves and their own needs—and it can be difficult to begin focusing on yourself again once you’re an empty nester.
Now that caregiving isn’t part of your daily schedule, take time to catch up on your needs. Schedule that wellness physical. Return to a well-balanced exercise routine (to help shed those extra caregiving pounds brought on by a stressful situation). Concentrate on returning to a healthy diet. Set aside time for a massage or meditation and get the haircut you’ve been putting off.
“Simply put, get your life back on track,” said Aldrich. “Returning to focused care of your own emotional, mental, and physical needs is critical, and it’s also critical to realize that you can’t do everything in one day. Try to be self-aware and realize that you are now caring for yourself, and that you don’t need to feel guilty about it. You’ve worked hard and done the best that you could. Now, it’s time to recenter, regroup and refresh. Remember that exercise is great for pushing away feelings of depression, so get up, get out, and move!”
Give others you love some love. If you don’t have time to devote to yourself while caregiving, you certainly don’t have as much time as you’d like to spend with others you care about. Even though your intentions weren’t bad, your relationships with family members, friends, children and even pets might have been somewhat strained through neglect. Now it’s time to rebuild those bonds.
You need comfort and company, so have a family and friends get-together. Ask your pals to join a bowling league or book club with you. Become active in your favorite charity. Just don’t overcompensate and wear yourself out.
“A friend of mine said that he lost all of his other friends during his wife’s long cancer battle, because he just didn’t have the time to spend with them,” Aldrich said. “I reminded him that true friends never go away for good. I also told him that maybe he feels guilty for having extra time now, and guessed that he might be bitter because his friends didn’t understand what he was going through. Either way, it’s worth the effort to reach out and reconnect. You may find that your friends aren’t lost after all, and it’s always a good idea to meet new folks through church, a health club, becoming involved in a craft group or going back to work. There are many ways to find good company.”
Allow yourself to grieve and get counseling. You may be grieving the loss of not only someone you loved, but also a daily way of life that you became accustomed to. That’s definitely an emotional double whammy. Taking the time to get group or individual counseling is important. You may find that the best option for you is a combination of both.
Counseling is available from many resources, such as religious facilities, the patient’s medical facility, the community, a local hospice organization or professional services.
“Asking for help to get your life-balance back after losing someone you cared for does not make you weak,” Aldrich stressed. “There is a stigma about counseling that has nothing to do with dealing with a difficult loss. Working through your emotional upheaval will only make you a stronger and better person.”
Focus on stabilizing your future. When you are involved in caregiving, many other aspects of your own life can get out of balance. It may not have been a priority then, but getting back to financial peace and life stability is important now. While it can be overwhelming in the big picture, take the “one step at a time” approach to reestablishing your footing. Prioritize your responsibilities. Which bills need to be paid first? Do you need to go back to work? Is there a financial planner available to help you?
“You may also need to be involved in closing out the patient’s estate and following his or her final wishes,” Aldrich said. “There will likely be many tasks to complete in the rebuilding process—some as simple as cleaning out the cabinets, others as complicated as closing your loved one’s business. Find out what resources are available, and don’t be shy about asking for help. Make a list of the tasks at hand and prioritize them according to the most critical and easiest to attack.”
Volunteer—it’s good for the soul. As you navigated the many twists and turns that cropped up on your caregiving path, you learned things that can be invaluable to others. While it’s important to give yourself some time before you jump into volunteering, helping others is one of the most fulfilling gifts you can offer.
“There is a great deal to be said for the feeling of accomplishment you get from offering someone else a shoulder to cry on, imparting your own hard-earned wisdom, or cooking a meal for that neighbor who just had surgery,” Aldrich said. “Support groups are always looking for others who will pitch in. You’ll often find that the people you are helping aren’t the only ones being helped.”
It’s important to acknowledge that, as a person who has fulfilled a purpose and devoted time to becoming a caregiver, you can be affected by your newly empty nest, Aldrich added.
“Once the demands on your time and energy have been taken away, it’s important for you to acknowledge that you have served a purpose, and that now it’s time to move on, regroup, and rebuild. Don’t expect this process to be speedy—but if you approach it with self-awareness and patience, you will once again achieve a full, balanced life.”
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