Jeff Kane: Caregivers need caregivers
I was writing a piece about caregiving, and wanted to add a photo of a caregiver to it.
After viewing several hundred available images, I began to get a funny feeling. The photos showed caregivers and their charges as happy as clams, like they’d just won the lottery. “Wow,” they could have been saying. “I’m a caregiver, and it’s second heaven.”
They didn’t look like anyone I know.
Real-life caregivers usually appear to me like they’re exhausted, and often frustrated, sad, and angry. Wouldn’t you be, having abandoned most of your own life in order to care for your sick loved one, drive to appointments, feed, clean, and advocate and, when not at the bedside, put up with holding the phone so you can argue with insurance people?
So what message do these stock photo smiles send? The patients are grateful, and proud of their caregivers; of course, that’s worth smiling about. And the caregivers seem to express that they’re honored to be in that role. What doesn’t show up are the unrevealed feelings.
Recently I ran into a friend who’s been caring for his wife. He’d lost weight since I saw him last, and his eyes were sunken into his skull. In Texas they’d describe him as rode hard and put up wet. He told me his wife was doing well, everything considered.
“And how about you?” I asked.
“Me? I’m fine,” he said, with a steely smile that read F.I.N.E. (Feelings I’m Not Expressing).
I asked, “Are you finding caregiving kind of draining?”
“Nah, I’m hanging in there. She’s the one who’s suffering.” And that smile again, as though he were saying, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to whine how hard it is, especially to my wife, since she’s already suffering plenty on her own.”
In our culture, caregiving is a zero sum game: we expect the sick person to feel better in proportion to the caregiver’s depletion. Caregivers figuratively transfuse their own blood into the patient. If you don’t dedicate yourself totally to your loved one, surrender your own life, then please feel guilty.
Fortunately, that’s not our only option. If we define patients as those who suffer, then the caregiver’s a patient, too, albeit usually an invisible one. If you’re a caregiver, then, you need your own caregiver, someone who listens, supports you, and speaks the truth. Caregivers need caregivers, period. That person might be your doctor or a friend or a support group. But you don’t get one unless you ask for help.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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