Would you answer a ‘Situations Vacant’ ad like this?
Probably not. Yet, there are millions of people who do jobs like this. They are called caregivers. Not the professionals, but the family.
Only all too often family members who have taken on the role of caring for a loved one, do so at their own expense. They not only give money, but also energy. Sometimes too much energy. Unfortunately many caregivers forget that you only can give, if you have.
It happens again and again that they exhaust themselves. Not only that, but they feel guilty about enjoying themselves. We are not talking about anything excessive. Just going to the movies with one of the girlfriends, or watching a ball game, and having a few beers with the boys. It’s not a question of feeling guilty, it’s about appreciating ‘me-time’. Not only appreciating, but enjoying it. Everyone needs ‘me-time’ – and caregivers more than anyone else. If you do not look after yourself, you simply cannot look after someone else.
Unintentionally care receivers often demand constant attention from their carers. On a visit to Germany I had dinner with an old friend and his wife. As he had had a mental episode, I asked him how he was. He answered: ”Fabulous!” His wife said: “I’m not fabulous.” Obviously oblivious to her strain he unwittingly demonstrated the root of the problem in many such relationships. The caregiver is the giver, and the ‘patient’ the taker. Both are unaware of what is happening here.
Another thing is emotional involvement. Talking to young nursing students I often tell them not to get emotionally involved. That’s relatively easy for young professionals. For the family, however, it is impossible. They already are emotionally involved.
One would think there is nothing wrong with it. To start with they wouldn’t do this job, were they not emotionally involved. So, it’s a good thing, right? Well,…it is just that this involvement influences their judgement. All our decisions are based on ‘rational’ and ‘emotional’ aspects. A professional is more inclined (or trained) to make rational decisions, while family members are guided by the emotional fabric that surrounds them, hence their decisions are not necessarily objective.
The last thing I’d like to mention here is communication; more precisely listening.
Communication happens via a sender and a receiver. In other words: one talks, one listens. In real life, however, it does not always work like this. There are interruptions, misunderstandings, and assumptions. This happens in any relationship, and it happens in care giving situations. Particularly in older couples it can, more often be found that answers are assumed, rather than patiently waited for. The better we know someone, the more we are inclined to “know” what someone wants to say. But facial expressions might be distorted, personality traits may have changed.
Not being able to talk, talking slowly, or not being able to find the right word can be quite frustrating for the care receiver. Equally frustrating it is for the family member. Is it surprising then that sometimes the required time to wait for an answer is not given? In today’s world everyone thinks we have to do things quite hastily. But maybe the ‘patient’ needs more time to figure something out. Single words may elude him/her, or the structure of a sentence, which used to be a pure pleasure to construct, doesn’t seem to make any sense any more, no matter how often it is tried.
It is a constant battle not to jump in, not to assume.
In closing I’d like to say that I didn’t pick three mistakes that caregivers are likely to make. I see neglected self care, decision making clouded through emotional involvement, and assumptions-based communication simply as a human reaction to a situation family members never thought they’d be in.
In many countries the health system does not give family members the support they deserve. Health professionals are either forced to accept it, or look the other way. For example: when drug and alcohol counselling the partner of a client is called co-dependent. Shouldn’t a caregiver have a similar status (co-something)? Let’s face it, they have been thrown into a role they have not asked for. However, they took it on without complaining, thereby saving the health system a lot of money. One could say that they have more to cope with than the care receiver.
Isn’t it time we acknowledge this somehow?