According to a recent AARP Public Policy Institute Report, approximately 40 million adults in the United States are now caring for another adult. The role of caregiver is often so demanding that many caregivers effectively put their own lives on hold to meet the needs of the person under their care. While much has been written about how to cope with the demands of caregiving, the challenges of "life after caregiving" are rarely addressed. A recent article by AARP explores the emotions and experiences of several former caregivers after the person under their care passed away.
"Some (caregivers) find they're not quite sure what to do with themselves because their reason for getting up in the morning, their all-consuming job, has now ended," said Ruth Drew, director of information and support services for the Alzheimer's Association. "Some people tell me that for the first six months to a year they're just finding their bearings, and it takes a while to feel like themselves again."
What follows are some of the insights shared by former caregivers in the AARP article.
Don't let isolation overwhelm you
While this may seem obvious, it is absolutely essential to stay busy to fight loneliness and depression. You must find the "thing" that gives you purpose. For one former caregiver, that thing was traveling. For another, Jeannie Moloo, it was writing. Moloo described her life as caregiver of her ailing husband while simultaneously raising three children this way:
"It was just run from one thing to the next to the next to the next. When you live that way, you don't have to process a lot of emotions because you're just running around, putting out fires."
Moloo is writing a book about her husband's illness, its impact on her family, and what she learned.
"We had promised each other—and this is going to make me cry—that we would take this experience… and make something out of it to help others," she said.
You'll experience unexpected emotions
Former caregivers are often surprised by the range of emotions they experience after the death of their loved one. According to C. Grace Whiting, CEO and president of the National Alliance for Caregiving, sadness is often accompanied by frustration and anger. In addition, the end of the responsibilities inherent in caregiving often lead to a feeling of relief, which is quickly followed by guilt for feeling that way. All of these conflicting emotions are common and entirely normal.
Put off the big things
When the role of caregiver comes to a close, it can be a mistake to rush into other major life changes, such as selling the house. Ruth Drew advises people to move slowly because grief and exhaustion can cloud one's judgement.
According to Jeannie Moloo, when her husband died she just wanted to run away from everything. What was her mindset at the time? "Sell our house, uproot the children and move to another area altogether, thinking I'd get us away from the suffering and loss with a fresh start," said Moloo. "I'm glad I didn't. Keeping with our family routines, in the comfort of our home where my husband lived with us, has provided solace for my family these past few years."
It's okay to move on
A sense of isolation, conflicting emotions, the urge to rush into major life changes… in addition to grief over losing a loved one, former caregivers experience all of these emotions and more. Eventually, however, you will be ready to move on. Give yourself permission to do so. Former caregivers must always remember to care for themselves.