Self Caring

Who Can You Talk To?

Last updated: Oct 20, 2010


Something wonderful happened to me recently, and so did something awful. Both times I immediately thought to call"¦someone I couldn't. My mother died almost three years ago, though the impulse to turn to her remains. Caregivers often experience this sensation long before a loved one dies. I know I did. Disability or dementia can make it hard, if not impossible, for a parent or spouse to be the confidante he or she has always been.

The double whammy here: Caregivers, of all people, need confidantes! Talking to a close friend eases stress. It protects you from damaging social isolation. It's as basic to mental health as healthy fats and exercise are to physical health.

Two things pinged my heart this morning, compelling me to highlight this important topic:

  • From a member on a forum: "One of my worst problems is that I no longer can tell mom my problems because she doesn't care to hear them and can't help me anymore. I know in my heart that this is true but she was always my best friend and the one I went to. Now I'm going to a counselor but that's just not enough.

  • From the news: Almost half of female family caregivers find it challenging to maintain relationships with family and friends, as do 31 percent of male caregivers, according to a new Harris Interactive poll.

And when the person who can no longer hear you, help you, or respond to you is the very person who knew you best, it's both a loss and a health threat.

What's a caregiver to do?

  • Wallow. But only up to a point. Of course you need to mourn not having your best friend there for you in the same way. But to soldier on as a caregiver without emotional outlets is dangerous, studies show.

  • Reach out to a range of possible confidantes. A sibling? Another relative or friend? A colleague in the same boat? An online community member? None of these people can replace the relationship you had with your spouse or your parent. But each may help fill in a missing aspect of that relationship.

  • Start now, and give it time. A friend told me the story of a relocated man bemoaning his new social scene. The man complained, "You can't make old friends." No. You can make new ones, though, and even in the superficial or casual beginning phase we all go through, these are better than no friends at all.

  • Do consider a professional counselor. Don't expect to pay someone to be a substitute mom or mate. As the Caring member above says, talking to an outsider might not feel like "enough" or "the same." But a trained therapist can help you latch on to healthy support systems (ways of thinking as well as people). That makes it less likely you'll turn to unhealthy ones (like, the kinds you drink, eat, or smoke, for example). Insurance may cover more therapy than you think.

  • Reap what you can still reap from the person in your care. It grieved me when my late grandmother grew so deaf that our weekly phone calls had to end. (This was before Skyping, alas.) In person, though, her hugs felt exactly the same. Hearing trouble, dementia, or other limitations are bound to rob you of long conversations laced with insight and advice "“ but physical affection or other kinds of rewarding connection can remain. It's not the same, but it's still something.

Caring for someone who's no longer able to be your confidante is truly an under-discussed and excruciating aspect of the caregiver role. Other suggestions on what works to ease this pain?