We are born selfish. The only thing that matters to us in our earliest days is being fed, sleeping when we need it, and being comforted when we want it.
When we’re a little older, and we begin walking and talking and interacting with others, some of this starts to change. We’re expected to be patient, to share with friends, and to use our manners.
As time passes, expectations grow. Hold the door for others before you walk in. Don’t eat until everyone has been served. We are taught that others’ needs come before our own.
With maturity, in marriage and with parenting, the sacrifices continue. How quickly we go from “what do you want to be when you grow up?” to learning how to forfeit our interests for the sake of others. It seems that to be a “good” adult we must recognize that what we want isn’t always the primary concern.
Of course there’s a need for this. To be part of a society and to get along with others, we do need to learn some of these “rules” of benevolence.
But, oh, how quickly we lose the balance. And nothing is a greater example of this than the caregiver.
The caregiver by definition is one who is characterized by little more than the fact that they are providing affection, attention, and protection for another person – usually at the sake of their own needs and wants (and health, sleep, relaxation and general well-being).
This doesn’t mean that every caregiver is a selfless saint motivated by nothing other than goodness and altruism. Some may be caring out of duty, or loyalty, while others do it because there is simply no one else who can or will.
Regardless of the reason, the one thing caregivers have in common is this: the very large void that is left after the one they have been caring for has died.
For some, dealing with the void that opens during life after caregiving may be simple – needing to readjust their routine and figuring out how they’re going to use their new-found time. But for others the void is more significant. Because in many cases, not only have they lost a person they love, but they may have lost the very essence of their identity and purpose. Am I still a husband or wife if my spouse has died? A son or daughter if my parents are gone?
Those trying to comfort a caregiver after their loss may say, “now you have time to do everything you couldn’t do before!” thinking that surely the caregiver must be feeling a significant relief now that they are no longer burdened with all they had to do before.
The problem is most caregivers don’t feel that they were “burdened” (at least in the way that others would probably expect) and this idea of doing what they want is so completely foreign that they have no idea where to start.
The challenge is that there are no easy answers and the solution is different for everyone. But bottom line, life after caregiving means caregivers need to re-learn how to direct some of their time, energy and concern back to themselves.
Start slowly and stick to the basics.
- Focus on your health. What doctor’s appointments have you skipped? Schedule those. Have you not been eating well? Take the time you now have to plan meals, food shop and cook. If you’re worried about the larger portions, buy single serve containers and freeze the leftovers. Concentrate on sleep, getting outdoors, and exercise if you’re able.
- Focus on your environment. If the car needs an oil change, if there are projects around the house, if there are things that have been neglected or need to be taken care of, address those. Ask for help when you need it, hire someone if you can. Take pride in the challenge of the things you can fix and accomplish.
- Focus on your relationships. Many times caregivers find themselves disconnected from the rest of the world. If they were caring for a loved one for a very long time, it may mean it’s been quite a while since there has been an opportunity to connect with friends and family. Reach out, schedule lunches and outings as you feel up to it. Reconnecting with those we care about is a wonderful way to pass the time and to remember that we’re not alone.
In most cases it takes years, even decades, to bring us to the mindset of not really knowing who we are, what we want, or what comes next. So be patient as the “what’s next?” part of life after caregiving begins to unfold. It can’t be forced and it won’t happen overnight.
But with time (the time a caregiver may now feel they have an abundance of) the answers can begin to be found.