It feels like yesterday that I was shuttling my three boys in a mini-van bursting with school backpacks and the chlorine-scent of wet towels, with my mom, Bonnie, riding shotgun. Sometimes, the dog, too.
Someone always needed to be somewhere — all at the same time, as I recall. Swim-team practice and Nintendo “play dates” for the guys; and the doctor for Mom.
I was in constant motion, with a state of mind best described as perpetually frazzled.
The pressures to be a good mom and a good daughter were colliding, and I wasn’t living up to my personal expectations for either. I was squeezed at both ends.
My sons are grown now, and my sweet Mom is gone, after fighting Stage IV breast cancer, followed by liver cancer.
I look back on those relentless days and wish I had raised the white flag sooner — not for surrender, but for assistance.
Like many people, asking for help is not built into my DNA, but I realize now that reducing my carpool duties and tapping my brother for respite care before I’d reached a breaking point would have benefied the boys, Mom, my brother — and me.
So as the founder CaringBridge, where I have seen magnificent acts of help, encouragement and giving — and receiving — during the past decade, I’m asking family caregivers to do more of what I say, and less of what I did!
- Research from sources including The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology and Psycho- Oncology confirms that family caregivers with good social support positively affect their patient’s health as well as their own.
- A Forrester Research survey conducted on behalf of CaringBridge found that 88 percent of family caregivers and patients say connecting with family and friends has a positive impact on the healing process.
There’s simply no doubt that taking care of caregivers is on equal footing with caring for patients. But it actually may be harder to do.
What does ‘help’ look like?
Whether jolted from normal life into a crisis role as a family caregiver, or gradually assuming more responsibility for someone with declining health, the job of a caregiver is to “keep going.” There’s little pause for reflection or distraction from the tasks at hand.
I remember once thinking that if I sat down, I would never get up. The feeling was very real at the time.
For family caregivers, “taking care of yourself,” mostly falls off the never-ending list of things to do.
It shouldn’t, but it does.
The wistful imagining of coffee with a friend or hunkering down for a TV binge-watch gets displaced by the reality of someone needing something.
A specialist’s appointment trumps a haircut, every time.
A domino effect
But the exhausting caregiver schedule can be considered in parallel to the desire of many loved ones who truly want to help. It’s just that family caregivers have little mind-share to articulate what help can look like.
In my case, when I called my brother — in tears — for help with Mom, he was horrified. I’d fallen into the caregiver pattern of just doing things myself, because it was easier than asking for help.
Only it wasn’t.
Once my brother saw I was suffering, there was a domino effect. He was much more aware, and next time I didn’t have to ask for help. He was there.
Are you kidding me?
While requesting help isn’t easy, tolerating such well intended — but unrealistic — directives as “Take a bubble bath,” “Get away for a day” or “Just say, ‘No.’” is harder.
I believe the only way to pop the thought bubble above a caregiver’s head that says, “Are you kidding me?” is to define “helpful.”
You have to start someplace; baby steps are OK.
One step could be “leaning in” to the tougher emotions of caregiving. It’s entirely acceptable, and healthy, to confess to someone in your inner circle, “I want to run away.”
Even if you don’t mean it — and on the day of my breakdown with my brother, I did — saying out loud that life is heavy may relieve a little pressure.
Accept that hug
A second step: I personally give you permission to occasionally ignore the phone and doorbell. The person dropping off a casserole can leave it on the porch. Having been on the giving and receiving end of many casseroles, I know this to be true.
And next time you receive one of those stiff-and- awkward hugs for which Minnesotans are famous, I strongly recommend hugging back.
Every caregiver, for one brief minute, should experience having care reflected back on them.
It is powerful.
Sona Mehring is founder and chief ambassador of the global nonprofit organization CaringBridge.org, based in Eagan, and author of Hope Conquers All: Inspiring Stories of Love and Healing from CaringBridge (2013). Throughout her career, Mehring has received several honors and awards. Most recently, in 2015, Sona was named a Titan of Technology by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. She was recognized as one of 2011’s Most Influential Women in Technology by Fast Company.