A common literary trope says that we all become the masks we wear. Choices can mold our personality, as much as personality shapes our choices. If, for instance, someone starting at a new cutthroat office thinks, “I’m not a backstabber, but I just have to act like one for a little bit,” then inevitably, that mask will become who they are. This same dynamic impacts our interpersonal relationships as well, and in few instances is that truer than when a relative becomes the primary caregiver for an aging loved one. By some alchemy of routine and expectation, the individuals become not loving relatives, but caretaker and patient, a dynamic that can overshadow the bond that brought them together.
That this is a normal and even expected development doesn’t make it any easier. A pattern of making sure medicine is taken, doctors are visited, meals are made and eaten, and other more intimate issues are handled can put a up a cold and clinical wall between people. That’s why it is so important to take time out from being a caregiver sometimes, to make sure that, in addition to focusing on health, you focus on the mental well-being of both parties by re-establishing that bond. Constantly reorienting the relationship towards the love that created it can ease stress and make life better for everyone.
The Stress of Being A Caregiver
The caregiver initially comes in out of the desire to show a senior love, and their new position results in a shift in the prior relationship. And with the shift comes stress. Stress for the caregiver can get overwhelming—it is up to them to make sure that everything goes well, that their loved one is safe and healthy and happy. Even if all these needs are being met, the stress of maintaining that balance is a huge, continual burden. This can be especially hard on women, who are more likely to suffer caregiver-related stress. As the stress mounts, tensions rise. A senior may feel both resentful and guilty because they have to be cared for, while a caregiver may resent the responsibilities. The love slowly gets buried under a layer of professionalism, the relationship colored with frustrated detachment. They start to fit the masks.
It’s time to take them off.
Reestablish Your Relationship With Love
This isn’t a clarion call for abdicating your caring obligations, of course. But it is important to work at remembering that you are doing this out of love. As a caregiver, if you forget that you are, primarily, a son or daughter or husband or wife or partner or anything, your attention may wane, and you may not be as diligent in your duties—and you certainly won’t get much joy out of them. Here are a few ways to make that relationship whole again.
- Take time every day to talk about and to each other. This seems simple, but it often isn’t. Conversations revolve around medicine and routine. Really talk to each other. If you are the child, ask for advice on things, wisdom they have gleaned. Even if it is non-essential, you start to remember your earlier relationship. It also reminds your parent that you value them, and that they are more than a patient. In any relationship, you should talk about yourself, too. This reminds the one being taken care of that you have more than a professional bond, and helps bring back the personal and wonderful parts of your relationship.
- Share memories. This is slightly different from above, where you’re talking about current situations. Go through photo albums, digital or otherwise. Talk about times that you’ve had together. This is great mental exercise for an aging loved one, but is important beyond that. You rekindle the relationship that you’ve had, and remember why you are doing what you are doing. The good times don’t have to be behind a glass wall, sepia-tinted; as long as you remember them, they are alive and vital and part of the magic bond that connects you two.
- Engage in an activity that you’ve both enjoyed. Remember how you and mom used to make pasta together? Do it again. Birdwatching? Break out the binoculars. Any activity that you both used to do that makes you happy, and that breaks the routine, helps to remove the mask. It’s a reminder of the good times, which don’t have to be in the past. A change in situation doesn’t mean everything has to change and nothing can ever be the same. If you work at activities you enjoy, it can bring new joy to a life given over to routine.
- Take a trip. This obviously is dependent on health, financial situation, and other factors, but getting out and doing something non-medical or necessary together can be hugely important. This can be as easy as a trip to a restaurant or museum, or as fun as going to a great Bay Area getaway for seniors and caregivers.
- Get more help. Even if it is just for an hour or a day, someone you hire or a volunteer, or another family member who can come in, it is important to ease the burden. Focusing on who you are can truly orient you back to your relationship. There are local social day services that spend time with older adults while a caregiver is working, needs time off, or just wants to spend time with their loved ones while someone else handles the details.
The last memories we have of people are often the dominant ones, which is a compounding tragedy if you look back at the final difficult years with some resentment at the mask you wore, and who you became. Neither side wants to playact the role of nurse and angry patient. And as the caregiver, you don’t want that burden to be the primary memory you have of your loved one. That’s why it is so important to take time to be yourselves. It has a wonderful impact, lasting way longer than the hour or the weekend. It keeps your relationship grounded in love and mutual respect, and makes things easier for everyone involved. It brings back your true faces.
Finding ways to alleviate stress and improve the lives of the caregiver and the cared-for is crucial to make the aging process more comfortable. At the Institute on Aging, we work to educate families, caretakers, and older adults how to handle the stress of aging. Connect with us today to learn more.