Last updated: Mar 29, 2011
Friends are like food for my older friend L -- a sustaining form of energy and pleasure, the staff of life. She and her husband, G, thrived on a bustling social circle. They belonged to a card club and an active parish, hosted dinners and parties, attended ladies' lunches and guys' bowling tournaments. But when G had a stroke, followed by a long recuperation period that included a diagnosis of liver cancer, L saw their bounty of buddies gradually shrivel into something more resembling a barren, Soviet-era supermarket shelf.
"Aren't I the last person you'd expect to be lonely?" she says. "But caregiving is kind of rough on your social life."
Call 'em fair-weather friends, basking in the good times with you and hidden away when it pours. They come in several variations (feel free to add your own!):
- The Recipro-cats
Some people keep social scores in their heads: You host, I host. I initiate, you initiate. When a busy caregiver can no longer reciprocate, he or she is eventually excised from the tit-for-tat list. This can be intentional or happen without either side realizing it until months have awkwardly gone by.
- The Uncomfortables
Some people are simply weirded out by illness. They don't know what to do, how to respond, how to help. It feels easier for them to say or do"¦nothing.
- The Impatient Ones
This stripe of friend often starts strong in a crunch, before wearying of the all-consuming nature of your caregiving. Maybe it's a peer who can't understand how you can sacrifice so endlessly for your parent, because the peer would make different choices. Maybe your devotion to your spouse unnerves a friend with a bad marriage, causing her to question whether she could be as selfless. Then there are the "caregiving virgins" who have never experienced caregiving firsthand and are clueless as to what's consuming so much of your time and attention.
- The Double-Vision Friends
Some couples are so accustomed to socializing in pairs, they're at a loss when a member of a fellow duo becomes a semi-singleton because of a partner's illness. They imagine the caregiver would feel too uncomfortable "alone," instead of realizing that all company can be good company. (Widows and widowers know the same phenomenon.)
- The Super-Sensitives
What, you forgot a birthday card? Ended a call abruptly one crazed day? Nobody can blame a caregiver for that --but some folks ignore your situation and expect you to act as though nothing else unusual was going on in your life.
- The Good-time Charlies
The ultimate in fair-weather friends, for these folks socializing means "having fun," period. Bedside chats and supportive hand-holding simply don't figure into their beer-commercial vision of what friends do together.
Stormy-Weather Friend Solutions?
Ultimately, no caregiver has time to add "friend maintenance" to his or her long list of chores. At the same time, isolation can be a real health risk for 24/7 caregivers.
Here's what L began doing in the last months before her husband died:
When people offered tentative or generalized help, she suggested a concrete expression of friendship: "Please let me know it's okay to call at any hour," or "Just keep checking on me every week; I miss our Friday lunches and this way we can keep going."
When she was extremely lonely, she swallowed her anger over being abandoned by old friends and reached out to a few with a call. Some, sheepish that they had fallen away, were glad to be wanted still, so both sides benefited.
And others, she just wrote off, because, "Who has time for avoidable stress?" she says. "You find out that being friendly with someone isn't the same thing as being a friend."