Caregiver burnout is not a myth. After caregiving for my parents for more than seven years, by the time they passed away I had lost so much weight from the stress, I was down to 100 pounds. I had given all my attention to helping my parents and I was in a state of near-collapse.
I noticed lots of resources for caregivers during those years, but never took much time to investigate them. I was too busy worrying and feeling responsible, being the “good little girl” I was supposed to be.
My parents had been demanding all of their lives, and as they grew older, they relied on me more and more. Some part of me saw their end-of-life processes as my last chance to please them, to finally satisfy the demands they had thrown at me for so many years, so it seemed imperative to give every ounce that I could. In spite of it all, they both died unfulfilled and unhappy, and it took me quite awhile to understand that their dissatisfaction with life had nothing at all to do with me.
Caregiving is one of the few experiences in my life that, looking back on it, I would have done differently. I would have made a grab for all the caregiver resources I could find, swallowed my pride and asked for help, and paid more attention to my body’s early signals of tiredness and distress. I would have given myself a break by pursuing things that I enjoy, and paying more attention to having fun, rather than worrying constantly about my parents.
Most of all, I wish I’d found a way to put my parents’ dying process in perspective. After all, death is a normal part of life. My father was in hospice for the last eight months of his life, and during our last visit, I finally understood how detrimental my relationship with my parents had been in relation to my sense of self. At that point, I could have started really paying attention to myself and avoided the decline in my health, but I was already burned out and couldn’t see any other way. I just kept worrying and trying to make everything better for my father. There’s a point at which you can do nothing more for someone who’s in the process of moving on; the trick is to figure out when that is, and to stop worrying and just “be there.”
Though I loved my parents and wanted to give them the best care that I could, it’s a relief to have my life back to normal. I’ve regained my sanity by reminding myself that it’s okay to be healthy and happy, it’s okay to pay attention to my needs, and that peace can finally be restored to my life. I’ve discovered there is life after caregiving, and that I deserve to focus on my own life, my own goals, and my own health with as much determination as I focused on helping my parents in their last years.
Katherine Mayfield is the author of The Box of Daughter: Overcoming a Legacy of Emotional Abuse, two books on the acting business, and a book of poetry, The Box of Daughter and Other Poems, which was written as part of her process of healing from an abusive childhood. She has written for local and national magazines, and blogs on Dysfunctional Families on her website, www.TheBoxofDaughter.com.