Monday, May 17, 2010

When the Caregiver has nothing left to give.

There is nothing quite like starting your day sitting with a grown man who is crying because he simply can no longer take care of his elderly mother anymore.

And as I sat there patiently listening to him rant, I could no longer see him.

I could only see myself.

No, I have never sat on my front steps and wept. No, I have never stopped caring for anyone or anything. But that doesn't mean I haven't been close.

How many of us have had those days. The baby won't stop crying, your sister won't stop calling and complaining, the boss criticises you once again, the colleague snubs you, you have had the 10th fight this week with your husband.

You may also be in the shoes of the man who was crying just this morning; you may be caring for an elderly parent who can no longer care for themselves.

And I bet you have moments when you feel as though you cannot do it anymore. That you are at your wit's end. But you somehow persevere. And no one knows how you really feel inside.

You just simply cope.

But how can some cope so well while others simply crumple?

Wish I knew for sure. Everyone is so different. Everyone has roles that they play. Although there always does seem to be that one person that steps up to the plate and takes charge.

But for every champion there always also seems to be other players; the victim of circumstances, the martyr, the complainer, the whiner, the hysteric and the Houdini who can never be found. Every story of hardship seems to have one of these roles clearly defined. It always amazes me.

The person in charge is the one that I usually deal with. Sometimes angry, sometimes bitter, sometimes aggressive, sometimes passive. Does not always seem loving, just practical. This person, however, is the easiest to work with. They are straight-forward and have a modicum of common sense.

But even they break down. Everyone has a breaking point.

So, what do you do? How do you cope when you have run out of air to breath?

You can't just leave and you can't just cry. Things still need to be done. One foot still needs to go in front of the other. So, what is the trick? How do they do it?

I thought a lot about this tonight. Thought a lot about that man I spoke of who just simply shut down.

For years he was doing okay. Did everything. Was everything.

But somewhere, he lost himself. And then he just couldn't get back to where he needed to be.

So he simply shut down.

I think that to cope effectively, we need to set a boundary and a limit. We should ask for help when we can, but step back when we must.

People that cope best with adversity seem to have an innate ability to know when their limit is being met. They set a boundary as well, so that they can never lose themselves. They may ask for help when needed, many times they even pay for help because asking others to take part can sometimes lead to more frustration.

I guess the message I want to share from today is that we will all one day find ourselves near the end of our rope. For many different reasons. And the best we can do is to allow ourselves to step back, to recognize our own limits and to be careful not to overstep our own boundaries. The ones that carve out who we are.

We can all step up to the plate when needed. I have seen people at their best when adversity strikes. But short term problems are easier to cope with than long, drawn out, stressful situations that never seem to end. Like the situation I found my patient's son in this morning.

He felt awful about giving up. He felt as though he let everyone down. He just never gave himself permission to say that he needed more than a short break, that he needed help beyond what he was getting, that he was losing himself. And no one could read his mind. No one could see it coming. He played the part so well. He was so well practiced. He stepped up to that plate and felt good about it for a very long time.

But that is the funny thing about the proverbial plate. You can step up and hit a winner, but if you can't do it every time, you know there is a team behind you that can help.

The truth is, in real life, most caregivers do not have a team. The whole game is dependent on them. And sometimes, even if they do have a team, it is so rife with dysfunction that it adds more to the burden instead of providing relief.

So you have to re-write the rules. Set the limits. Define the boundaries.

It is really the only way to survive.

The caregiver in this case didn't do that. He went too far beyond his limits for far too long. I am not even sure he recognized his limits anymore.

The mother, by the way, is doing fine. She is still well cared for, as many of the ill and frail are. She is still whole. She is still in her element. She has not even noticed that her son is gone.

The caregiver, on the other hand, is still a mess. And probably will be until his mom dies and he is set free from the responsibility of caring for her, even if he is actually not the one doing it anymore. He is broken and we will try to help him, but our help only goes so far. He will once again have to step up and now take on the task of rebuilding what he lost. What he allowed himself to lose.

I hope he can do it.

I am not suggesting that we stop taking care of our kids or our husbands or parents. I am suggesting that we allow ourselves to be a bit selfish in that we maintain our wholeness, our selves. That we allow ourselves to back away, that we state our limits early and often, that we get the help we need. That it is okay not to be the champion all of the time. That even champions can't be champions forever.

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on. ~Havelock Ellis

Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.
~Herman Hesse

1 comment:

  1. Amen. Every caregiver should be given this post to read. It's the hardest job in the world, to care for someone who is not going to get better.