Caregiving can be tough on friendships. Many of your old friends may not be able to relate to your new role and -- unsure what to say or do -- they avoid getting in touch. Others get tired of hearing about the demands of caregiving or your lack of availability.
Yet caregivers need, more than ever, the support of friends outside of their caring responsibilities. What helps?
Make the effort yourself.
In the middle of a care crisis, you won't be able to make calls or visits the way you once did. But over the long haul, you may need to force yourself to do these things, because friendships are built on give-and-take. Even if you can't be as available as you once were, your friends still want to hear your voice or see your face -- or even just hear from you in an occasional e-mail or text message.
Rely on some easy rituals to help you stay connected.
Sometimes regular commitments are easier to build into your schedule than spur-of-the-moment ones, because you can make plans for respite care. The rituals can be as simple as a standing Friday afternoon walk or a monthly book club date. If it's really hard to get away, invite your friend over -- he or she won't be expecting to be entertained; your company is what counts. Or try to involve your loved one, if possible -- to go and get ice cream together, for example.
Self-impose limits on your venting.
It's wonderful to have nonjudgmental pals with whom you can gripe a little. The caveat: Don't make griping -- or caregiving, period -- the sole focus of your talks. Agree in advance that you'll talk for 15 minutes about your current caregiving woes, then stop -- and set a timer. Or ask a friend to give you the equivalent of a weekly "get out of jail free" card: one phone call a month where you can just unload, no questions asked. This may help limit your negative interactions while giving you a chance to de-stress every so often.
Keep the ebb and flow nature of friendships in perspective.
You may have a hard time being a good friend at the moment, but think back to when you were starting a job or had young kids. Sometimes we need more from close friends, and sometimes they need more from us. Caregiving is a phase in which you build a friendship debt with your best pals -- and you can give it back, later.
Know, too, that not all friendships survive caregiving.
Let's face it: Many friendships are superficial or circumstantial -- they may thrive in bright times, but when the situation is a little darker, you may discover that you have less in common than you thought, or that you know one another less well. Some people are freaked out by the demands of eldercare; some demand high levels of maintenance themselves. Chalk it up to life, and don't take these lost causes personally.