Not another phone call. I had taken 15 of them that day and it was only 4 p.m. I’d heard from nurses, a doctor, a physical therapist, a pharmacy calling for payment that I didn’t know we owed, family and, of course, the one who’s the focus of all this attention: my 89-year old mother Jan.
She’d fractured her hip two weeks before, made it through a rocky surgery and hospitalization and now was in a rehab where Team Jan was determined to get her walking again. Taking these calls in between trying to work and manage my own life on this otherwise ordinary weekday felt like running a gauntlet.
So I stopped what I was doing, took a deep breath and went for a walk. I thought about something spiritual author Marianne Williamson said last year during one of her lectures at a time when I was, I’ll admit, complaining a bit about the caregiving workload.
“One problem with our generation is that we always think we have something better to do,” she told the audience. “But what do you have going on that could possibly be more important than caring for your older, ill loved ones who need you in the last years of their lives?”
I couldn’t argue with that. Then she flipped the script and reframed caregiving from managing the negative to seeing it as a positive.
“Do you ever stop to think about the rewards of caregiving?” she asked.
The truth is, there are many, once you have time to reflect. We all know that caregiving takes a lot out of us – money, time, and emotional and physical energy, to name a few. But then there’s the other side.
I never wondered if I could make a positive difference in my mother’s life. I already knew I could. I also knew on a deep level that if I didn’t do what I could to make her life better at a time when she needed help, then nothing else I did would matter very much.
Talking to others in the same caregiving boat, I found out I wasn’t alone. Caregivers struggle with focusing on the benefits as well as the costs and some, like Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, end up feeling grateful for the experience.
“I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help care for my grandmother,” she says. “She had spent her entire life caring for family members, including me, and it felt good to be able to care for her when she needed help, and to give back to her for all the care and support that she had given me. To watch her enjoy her food, know she was clean and resting comfortably in her bed, and make sure her hair was combed just right, was rewarding for me. I knew that I had done a good job in making her happy and comfortable.”
If you could use some reminders about the positive sides of this often-challenging role, consider these 10 rewarding (and sometimes surprising) aspects of caregiving.
1. Caregiving Gives You a Sense of Purpose
When the veils are ripped back, we often see how the happy, shiny people in Facebook photos – the ones who always seem to take fabulous trips and attend rip-roaring parties – aren’t always so blissful, especially if they lack purpose.
While they may not make us giddy with delight, our contributions to another person’s well being have undeniable and long-lasting positive effects for us. “Many caregivers feel a sense of satisfaction and purpose knowing they are helping to keep a person they love safe and well cared for,” says Erica Solway, PhD, co-associate director of the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. In that way, service to others doesn’t diminish your life; it enriches it.
2. It Connects You to Your Humanity
Many of us race through our days, working, commuting, taking care of our business – all of which is important, but the demands of daily living can keep us from taking the time to see other people fully. We can connect to a million material things from cars to cell phones, yet feel disconnected from those around us.
“Without question, caregiving is demanding, stressful and exhausting, but it can be very rewarding as well,” says Ruth Drew, director of information and support services at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Helping and caring for someone is a selfless act and often summons our best humanity.”
3. Even If You’re Already Close, You Might End Up Closer to Your Caree
"While I don't want to sugarcoat the challenges with being a caregiver, some caregivers appreciate that this can be an opportunity to give back to their loved one, for example a child who wants to care for their parent,” says Sean Coffey, who's written about caregiving challenges and rewards and is a former policy specialist with the Family Caregiver Alliance.
Even if your relationship to the person you’re caring for has always been good, helping them can take your relationship to a new level. “It is not uncommon for caregivers to tell us that their experience brought them closer to the person,” says Drew. “Because caregiving is such an intensely personal act, it knocks down walls and often opens the door to deeper and more meaningful conversations.”
4. And If You’re Not Close, It’s an Opportunity to Resolve Negative Feelings
What if you never got along with your parent, or something happened in your relationship and you’re still holding a grudge? Instead of considering your helping them as biting the bullet with no redeeming benefit for you, consider how your caregiving might heal wounds for both of you.
“Caregiving for an older person is a way to resolve negative feelings that remain about a parent or other authority figure,” says Dr. Ken Robbins, a clinical psychiatry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison specializing in geriatrics. “You resolve your feelings once you see how vulnerable they can be, and by doing that, you can feel good about your ability to forgive them.”
5. You Focus on What’s Really Important to You
“Many caregivers come away from the experience with a new perspective on life,” says Drew. “Things you think are important or a high priority before an illness can seem pretty inconsequential afterwards.”
Caregiving offers a not-so-gentle reminder that life is short and it’s important to focus on the things that are most meaningful to you. In fact, two out of three respondents to a 2017 Alzheimer’s Association survey reported that they felt like the experience gave them a better perspective on life in general.
6. It Connects You on a Deeper Level to Your Loved Ones
You often hear of families torn apart by caregiving struggles. But many also come together in times of duress. As you work together toward a common goal, you may find that the petty differences that once divided you pale in comparison to the needs of a parent or sick relative.
In the Alzheimer’s Association survey, 35 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers said their caregiving experience strengthened their relationships with other family members. Relationships between spouses and partners were strengthened the most from the experience, with 81 percent believing that “being emotionally there for each other” was a source of strength they drew upon for caregiving.
7. You’re Freed from the Myth that You’re in Control
Feeling in control is a double-edged sword. You can feel like the captain of your ship, but when you hit rough waters, if you still think you’re somehow in charge, you’ll feel undue tension and stress. But it turns out that those rough waters carry a powerful lesson if you’re open to it.
“Caregiving has taught me that I cannot control the universe,” says Leslie Eckford, a registered nurse and co-author of “Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home.” “At first, I got a great deal of satisfaction for being the problem solver in the intricacies of caring for my parents (medical issues, adapting the home, finding good people to help). But, over time, I learned that I had limitations and I had to be honest with myself and my family about what I could and couldn't do.”
8. You Find Satisfaction in Having Direct Conversations
There’s something about daily living that can keep us from having direct and powerful conversations. If things are OK, we don’t want to rock the boat. But once you’ve confronted the life and death issues that are often a part of caregiving, you’re less afraid to have those tough talks.
“In contrast to my parents' resistance to dealing with the unpleasant realities of aging, everything is on the table between my children and me,” says Eckford. “We have an open dialogue about what we do and don't want our own aging to be like. My children and I easily discuss what has worked and what hasn't with their grandparents aging at home.”
9. It’s a Way to Teach Younger Generations What’s Important
By caring for someone else, you teach your children (or nieces, nephews and friends’ kids) important life lessons and values. “My children grew up learning about caregiving,” says Eckford. “Every visit to their grandparents included learning about caring for someone with Parkinson’s disease and the many things a caregiver does. My managing their grandparents' care was an everyday experience for them. As my children have grown, I see that they have become thoughtful people who are understanding of elders and their changing needs.”
Dr. Robbins agrees. “This is a chance to model altruism for your family, and hope this isn’t a demo of what you will need some day from them,” he says. But if you do end up needing care yourself, you’ve shown your family how to do it well.
10. You Learn What You May Need in the Future
By seeing what an older person needs, you may get a sense what you’ll one day need, plus insights and information you wouldn’t have otherwise. “There are things caregivers may need in the future for themselves or another person, says Amanda Lambert, an Aging Life Care professional, certified care manager and co-author of "Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home." “This includes various types of home care, insurance coverage, technology, support groups, home accessibility and adaptation support.”
Science backs this up. The University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging’s report on dementia caregiving from November 2017 found that as caregivers experience the realities of daily life for a person living with dementia, caregivers may be better prepared than others to consider and plan for their own wishes as they age.”
Ultimately, caregiving becomes as much about you as it does about the person in your care. “Seeing the person you are caring for smile when you come into a room, or relax when you brush their hair, makes you, as the caregiver, feel like you are making a difference,” says Smetanka. “And isn't that what many of us want? To make a difference?”