“Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call—and I’ll be there”.
By Mary Bart
The power of social supports cannot be underestimated. The challenge for many busy caregivers, however, is how to stay socially engaged and in touch with our friends. Let’s take a look at why we need friends and how to maintain friendships while caregiving.
Friends are the family that we choose for ourselves. We get to pick our friends—they are usually not relationships that come with marriage or other family ties. Friends give us their unique, honest perspectives and opinions, and openly share their wisdom with us. With friends, you often don’t have to explain—they just get it. Friends might share common interests, ideas and often life situations and experiences. Friends know our embarrassing moments and those of pure hilarity.
Friends offer love and support, and complement who we are. Friends promote positive moods and optimism, while also helping us to manage stress, loss or trauma. Friends often bring out a side of us that has been tucked away and even forgotten. Finally, friendships give us a sense of security, belonging and community that are outside of our caregiving, family and business roles and responsibilities.
Taking care of yourself
It is very easy for caregivers to become totally consumed and absorbed in day-to-day care and put their own wishes aside. Spending too much time focused on the needs and demands of someone you are looking after is often not only physically unhealthy, but can also lead to “caregiver burnout,” stress and depression.
In order to be a good and effective caregiver, you must also make time to take care of yourself. I firmly believe that caregivers need to “escape” with their friends in order to create or maintain some life balance, perspective and a sense of humour and personal worth.
Here are 10 ways to help you stay socially engaged, have fun and enjoy your friends.
1) Call a friend. Yes, the telephone is still one of the easiest and most pleasant ways to connect. Brief calls with friends will remind you that there is a world outside.
2) Help brighten things up. If there are household tasks that you can help with, make yourself available. Giving a room a fresh coat of paint is more fun if you do it together.
3) Exercise together. There is nothing like a “walk and a talk” to rejuvenate yourself.
4) Arrange a movie night. Rent a film, go to the movies, or grab a quick coffee with a buddy.
5) Invite a friend over to help you sort through a cupboard and reciprocate. Great conversations and fun can arise when doing basic household chores together.
6) Join a club or group that you and a friend are both interested in. Ideas include a book group, cooking club or taking up a new hobby.
7) Have “pedicure for two.” Many day spas will give two services side-by-side at the same time. What a treat to be pampered while catching up with a friend!
8) If a friend lives too far away to visit regularly, use the internet to stay in touch. Skype on your computer to see your friend on screen and have a great laugh and talk.
9) Accept social invitations. If you’re invited to a party, go. It will lighten your stress and you will hear how others are doing. Interacting with other people is the key to survival.
10) Keep connected with friends by joining Facebook or another social media site.
Try these tips to be a better friend to caregivers:
• Ask, “What can I do to help?” Caregivers are often overwhelmed and simply knowing that you are offering help will make them feel less isolated. Offer two choices, such as: “Can I bring over a cooked meal or help with some laundry?” Both ideas will be appreciated.
• Drop-off food. This could be something that is homemade, or pick up a cooked chicken from the grocery store. Frozen meals are often best because they can be used when needed.
• Offer the gift of time. Caregivers are often not just caregiving, but also maintaining the household. Offer to help vacuum, clean out the fridge or simply sitting with the care recipient while the caregiver takes a shower.
• If you don’t live locally to your caregiver friend, send him or her a gift card for a local spa or a CD of the caregiver’s favourite music. Or, simply mail a card with photos of you and your dog. It will be much appreciated.
• Don’t judge. If you think that a person’s decisions are wrong, refrain from sharing your opinion. You are not living their life and what they face on a daily basis. You are not in their shoes.
• Don’t share caregiving horror stories. It is not a competition to see who has had the worst caregiving nightmares. Instead, share stories that are fun, crazy and make your friend laugh.
• Be a good listener. Caregivers often need to vent or cry to let their feelings go. Listening doesn’t mean you have to solve their problems. It means you care enough to pay attention and acknowledge what they are feeling.
• Don’t think that you are bothering your friend, or that they are too busy. Your friend might only be able to have a brief chat with you, but even a minute on the phone will let them know they are not forgotten.
• Don’t take it personally if your caregiving friend does not regularly call you. Know that they are most likely dealing with a lot of stress, and may not have the strength for one more thing in the day. Assume that you should be the first one to reach out on an ongoing basis!
My best friend, Wendy
Wendy and I first met when we were just five years old. Although we lived in different cities, I knew I could count on her when I was caring for my parents. Shortly after the deaths of my parents, Wendy was diagnosed with cancer. Then it was my turn to help her. She knew I would do everything in my power to make her life easier and better. Now she is gone, I look back on the caregiving journeys we took together. We had each other’s backs, each other’s hearts.
Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an internet-based registered charity that offers education and support to people dealing with the declining health or death of a parent. caregivingmatters.ca