Winston-Salem, N.C. —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. Yes, it’s initially an adjustment to set your daily clock around the care receiver. Parts of your own life must be put on hold, but soon your schedule as a caregiver becomes the new normal, and you begin 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?”
Aldrich knows this feeling all too well. “After my husband, Gordon, was diagnosed with cancer, I spent two years in heavy caregiving,” she shares. “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.”
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,” says Aldrich. After the oxygen machine was turned off, the silence was deafening. 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.
Give others you love some love. 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—no excuses.
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 have become accustomed to.
Focus on stabilizing your future. It may not have been a priority then, but getting back to financial peace and life stability is important now.
“You may also need to be involved in closing out the patient’s estate and following his or her final wishes,” Aldrich says. Find out what resources are available, and don’t be shy about asking for help.”
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.
“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 assures.
“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.”
(For more information, visit www.jonialdrich.com.)