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Becoming a Caregiver: My Role Has Changed, Now Who Am I?

By Melissa Winberry | 07/15/2021

A caregiver bumping foreheads with an older loved one

We all have roles in life that we are used to and comfortable with. Some roles that come to mind easily are mother, father, sister, brother, wife, husband, partner, friend, aunt, uncle and grandparent. These are very common roles that are socially accepted, defined and supported. We know how to be a parent, sibling, friend etc., because people teach us by serving as an example. What happens when these roles start to change, however? A parent who used to once care for you when you were a child, suddenly requires care. Or a partner, someone who is your closest confidant and support, needs assistance managing a challenging chronic disease. These scenarios happen every day, and the shift that it can create in a relationship paradigm can have a ripple effect of feelings, emotions and struggles. 

The experience of becoming a caregiver

Chances are if we are part of a family system, at some point in our lives we will experience this role shift into a caregiver. If we are female, our chances of being a caregiver are considerably higher. Upwards of 75 percent of all caregivers are female and may spend as much as 50 percent more time providing care than males. 

Unfortunately, we won’t be likely to hear something like “I accept this illness with grace and dignity, and turn my life care over to my caregiver calmly and reasonably” from a loved one when we become their caregiver. Receiving a diagnosis or having an accident will rock a person’s world. Not being able to do things for one’s self and having to rely on others whether temporarily or indefinitely, stings our innate desire to be independent. We are all generally good at being the helpers, but when it comes time for needing the help, an emotional storm can be unleashed.

A loved one who needs the help may be feeling mad, sad, frustrated and scared, while simultaneously we as the caregivers may be having many of these same feelings, but from a very different perspective. Will I be enough? Will I have the energy, and patience to do this? How long will I have to do it? How will I juggle work, finances, caring for my children and now being a caregiver to my father, sister or partner? 

Having a loved one’s role in our lives change

At the same time we are going through this change, the person we love may be changing and becoming someone different, and though we may have glimpses of what was, there will be lots of new and different added to the mix. For example, if we are a spouse of a loved one with dementia, we may experience our spouse exhibiting challenging behaviors at times. At the start of caregiving, we come to this role from a place of love and the existing relationship we have with the person. Overtime, the role changes, and like many changes in life, it can be difficult to accept.

If we are a spouse taking care of a loved one living with dementia, it is OK to be scared and frustrated and to just want to be that person’s spouse again, and not a manager of doctor’s appointments and medications. We can honor those feelings, and find a way to cope with them. We should avoid denying ourselves any feeling, as this may only make our situation worse. If we are a child caring for a parent at home after a recent fall or other health issue, we may be feeling overwhelmed with juggling childcare, work and now also a parent needing care but potentially refusing to accept help. We can acknowledge that this is overwhelming and that we do feel trapped, and then get help. 

Caregiving resources to help ease the transition

The good news is there are many resources where one can get help. If a loved one is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association can be a good resource. The American Cancer Society also has a wealth of information for those managing a cancer diagnosis. We can explore disease specific resources like these for quality information, and look into caregiver support groups in our area. There can be strength in realizing we are not the only one coping with caregiving responsibilities.         

Within all struggles in life, if we search for them, beautiful moments can be found. Whether we’re a spouse who is caring for our partner, a brother or sister taking care of a sibling, or a son or daughter taking care of a parent, we can still take walks in the park with a loved one, play a joke or be an example that caring for those we love can be viewed as a gift.

Caregiving is a journey with peaks and valleys. We should be kind to ourselves, seek help and respite, talk to family and friends, understand that self-care is essential and not optional and know that whatever feelings we have are legitimate. To find help and respite, consider investigating resources through Family Caregiver Alliance or Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s WeCare…Because You Do program. Being a caregiver for someone is one of the greatest gifts we can ever give. We are giving a loved one the opportunity to continue to live the best life they can, for as long as they can, and no monetary value can ever be placed on that.           

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