The Post-Caregiver: Finding Life After Caregiving

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"I'm glad that I am my parents' caregiver, but I had no idea how hard it would be to move on with my life," writes Mary, a Steps & Stages participant who's also an active blogger. "I didn't know that my desire for 'freedom' was going to be handed to me on a silver platter and I was going to stand, frozen in place, wondering what to do with it." Mary reflects what many post-caregivers feel.

Many moved near -- or even moved in with -- their loved ones, cutting hours at work or stepping away from careers or meaningful activities and friendships. Weeks turned into months and even years, and now facing life after caregiving feels uncertain.

How do you find life after caregiving? Here at we've found that many caregivers continue to stay active online as their lives transition after caregiving. We've looked for nuggets of wisdom and insights from those who have walked this journey, and we've found some great tips that will aid in leading you to life beyond caregiving.

Give yourself time to grieve and to heal -- and avoid comparing your timetable.

"How long will it be before I feel like 'me' again?" Jeanie, a post-caregiver, asked. Grief looks different on every person. It's OK if you spend weeks or months after your loved one has passed being weepy. It's also OK to not shed a tear. Russell Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute and coauthor of The Grief Recovery Handbook, reminds us that it's important to honor right where we are -- even if we're not "fine." Just ride the waves of grief, however unpredictable, and trust that if you really live this natural transition, in time it will pass. When will you feel like yourself again? You might not ever feel like your old self -- too much has happened -- but it doesn't mean that you won't welcome the new you that emerges in time.

Welcome a fresh start.

No, you're not who you were, but is that such a bad thing? It might be difficult to admit, but were there aspects of your life before caregiving that you might be glad to change? Here's your chance. Just because you were in banking/nursing/teaching or whatever profession before doesn't mean you have to go back. Take a look at all the decisions, from where to live and work to your friendships. There's something exhilarating about striking out in a new direction. Does this sound scary? It is! Invite your concerns along for the ride -- just tell them they have to sit in the backseat.

Many spouses and family caregivers feel guilty for making choices they wouldn't have made while their loved one was alive. Let yourself take a little bit of time and effort to figure out who you are and what you want. Give yourself permission to try something out of the norm, even outrageous, whether it's online dating; pursuing a degree in your 50s, 60s, or beyond; or even taking up ballroom dancing lessons. It just might be time to say "yes" and let life surprise you.

Create a social circle.

It's not that we mean for it to happen, but our world grows smaller as our caregiving increases. A recent poll conducted by found that nearly half of respondents say they do not have an active social life outside their home. In fact, only about 1 in 10 is satisfied with their social life. If that's happened to you, then ask yourself, "What do I miss? Whom would I like to call?" Explain that caregiving was really hard and you'd like to get back together. Or pick up new activities and find new friendships, ones that reflect your interests today. Studies have shown that people with strong friendships enjoy better health and have a more positive outlook.

Tap into your resilience and assess the skills you've gained.

Caregiving shows us that we are stronger and far more resilient that we could have ever imagined. The same strength it took to stand up for your loved one and advocate for good care is available for your own life. You've learned how to navigate the medical community, figured out insurance coding, worked through difficult family issues, and even walked with your loved one through the dying process.

You gave yourself to caregiving and you made a real difference for your loved one -- now take all that love and strength and commitment and give it to yourself. Finding your way to life after caregiving isn't always easy, and building a life you love will take time. But then, one day, for no particular reason, you'll be doing something ordinary -- like driving to the grocery store or watering your flowers, and you'll realize that life is good, real good.

What's Mary doing? Eighteen months after her dad passed, Mary is now a nanny for two different families. "Every day I go to work and care for these babies, I find myself laughing and smiling more and more. For so long I wondered how in the world I'd find something I'd care about -- and now I do!"

Carol O'Dell

Carol O'Dell is the author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir, about her experience caring for her mother through Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and coronary diseases. See full bio