8 Lessons I Learned Caregiving
by Dr. Santo D. Marabella
The Baby Boomers have been long labeled the “sandwich generation” for their dual and often simultaneous roles of caring—both for their children and, later on, for their parents. While younger Silver Sagers may also find themselves in this situation, many Baby Boomers have had the experience of having one or both parents living into their eighties and nineties. What is truly a blessing can at the same time pose significant challenges and overwhelming responsibilities.
With good reason, we devote resources and attention to the needs of the loved ones in our care. At the same time, we need to dedicate more attention to the needs of the caregiver. Caregiving for loved ones of any age can be both a life-affirming and a spirit-draining experience. Here’s why:
- Approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. Caregiving in the U.S. National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. 2015.
- The majority of caregivers—53 to 68 percent—are female. Family Caregiver Alliance.
- Many Caregivers neglect their own health. AP News, 2018.
- Dementia patients whose caregivers are stressed may die sooner. Approximately 15.7 million care for Alzheimer’s patients. Axios.com, 2017.
- “In many cases, people will be spending more time and resources caring for their aging parents than they did raising their own children.” Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO, AARP.
I know this to be true. I’m a caregiver for my parents. It’s difficult at times certainly, but I am constantly learning from the experience. I’d like to share some of the most important lessons I have learned.
- The losses are many and may vary greatly, from losses in the loved one’s daily activity functions (e.g., bathing) to losses the caregiver experiences in the relationship with the loved one (e.g., the parent is no longer able to offer support or advice to their child). We may never imagine how many and how endless the losses are, and we may be unprepared for the impact they will have on our loved ones and ourselves. So grieving the losses is a healthy, albeit difficult, beginning.
- The sadness is gripping. It is not surprising that with losses comes sadness. At times, the sadness may be overbearing and all-consuming, for your loved one and perhaps also for you. We may get angry, but that does no good. Sadness, not anger, is your key to dealing with loss.
- Regrets are avoidable. The commitments of caring—time, energy, responsibilities—can be numerous and onerous, but choosing not to care can be devastating on so many levels. The most crucial one to me is regret. Regret in my view is that gnawing feeling that “I should have . . .” Understanding and accepting your caregiving status—why you are taking on this role—can help you avoid regret. No regrets equals peace of mind and spirit.
4. The role is respect. Respect takes on a different form in caregiving. It means honoring our loved ones’ wishes for their life—including their health, their finances, their independence, and their dignity. Achieving this kind of respect requires a mastery of two equally important tasks: knowing what their wishes are, and keeping them distinct from yours.
5. The goal is protection. We can’t change or control fate, disease, or aging. The only thing we can do is protect our loved ones—specifically, their safety and their dignity. This becomes the goal of our caring. Having this focus keeps you on track.
6. Advocacy is paramount. It is by far the most challenging and critical aspect for a caregiver. There are numerous, sometimes difficult, requirements for effectively advocating for a loved one. Advocacy is our strongest and most effective tactic in protecting those for whom we care.
7. The job is draining. Caregiving can be exhausting due to worry, fear, lack of sleep, multi-faceted exhaustion, and personal sacrifices, to name a few. Every caregiver needs to find what works for them to combat this. Spoiler alert—it starts and ends with self-care.
8. Caring is love. Caregiving is as much a gift to the caregiver as it is to those for whom we care. The gift is endless and meaningful opportunities to show and feel love. Love may not “conquer all,” but it sure makes a difference when you care for someone.
There’s one more lesson for me—being present. When I do this, I am more thoughtful about how I relate to my parents. I am less worried about what I cannot change or what is ahead. Being present reinforces a perspective that what I do as a caregiver is an expression of my love and respect for my parents, who have done so much for me. But it’s more than that. It’s a way of helping that gives their lives as much quality as possible. And that’s the right thing to do.
Photo/Art credits: Looking Back on Regret by Brian Messina (US) Deviant Art and photo of Santo’s parents – Sam and Anna Marabella by Santo.
Dr. Santo D. Marabella, is a professor at Moravian College, in Bethlehem, PA, where he teaches leadership, ethics, and management. He is a member of the Academy of Management, the National Association of Social Workers, the Dramatists Guild of America, and the Theatre Communications Group. His other writing includes six plays, a musical, a short film, and a TV pilot—all of which have been produced. Marabella’s monthly column, Office Hours with The Practical Prof, has been featured in the Reading (PA) Eagle’s Business Weekly since 2012. Marabella earned a Doctor of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, a Master’s of Business Administration from St. Joseph’s University’s Haub School of Business, and a Bachelor's degree from Villanova University. His latest book is The Lessons of Caring: Inspiration and Support for Caregivers.