Some months ago I wrote about my wife’s ongoing battle with cancer. A particularly aggressive type of cancer. She was in remission and we were hopeful.
There have been developments and several brief but necessary hospitalizations since that column appeared.
I have no intention of writing a series about my wife’s battle. That would be far too great an invasion of her dignity and privacy. I do though want to write about how illness can change even the most basic of human routine and function. In the case of cancers they can be so slow-moving and relatively easily if not cured, then certainly controlled, that their impact on daily life, at least initially, is negligible. There are cancers which arise suddenly and with utter ferocity assault not only the afflicted person, but also his and her caregiver or caregivers.
It’s the caregivers I’m addressing here and because there is a thread in the email and other communication I’ve received since publicly speaking and writing of my wife’s health. Hundreds of messages from complete strangers, friends and acquaintances alike contain a common thread for anyone who has assumed the role of caregiver for a loved one. This is not limited to caregivers for cancer patients.
Caregivers, be good to yourself and be patient with the person you’re caring for. They do not see life as you would wish them to. Their ability to perform the most basic of routines, a shower, getting dressed, making simple decisions may have become very difficult, or impossible without assistance. You’re there to provide that assistance. You volunteered. It is difficult for you and you may want to do everything for your loved one. Don’t. Take the lead from the patient and if not much appears to have been accomplished during any one particular day, don’t become frustrated and don’t be hard on yourself. Neither the person you’re caring for, nor you are responsible.
Remember to continue to do things for yourself. Set aside a few hours a week (at least) for activities you enjoy. It recharges you and your loved one will feel she or he has not completely changed your life.
Don’t take on the impossible, even if it’s something you’ve always done together. If it’s no longer doable, find a substitute. Play a board game, read a book, enjoy a website together. You will find something and it will help. If you’ve always been a team with many interests, those interests, by necessity may have to change, but the fundamentals of sharing do not.
If you as the caregiver find yourself under immense stress and so much so you don’t know if and how you’ll be able to continue, ask for help. Ask for help from family and perhaps mutual friends. Ask for help from organizations set up to provide such assistance. The Canadian Cancer Society would be one example. The organizations are not only a source of assistance, but also information and programs with which you and your loved one may choose to participate.
Being a caregiver is incredibly rewarding, can be frightening and is open to self-criticism. Understand that.
The most important advice for caregivers? Try to enjoy even the most difficult of days with the person you’re caring for. If you can both laugh at something. That’s what you’ll remember.