Bewildered and Beleaguered Baby Boomers Tackle Caregiving

As a caregiver, there are times you just want to give up. But there are ways to tackle caregiving while keeping yourself intact.
By Diana B. Denholm, PhD, LMHC

You’re exhausted. You can’t sleep, and your marriage and relationships are strained—all while you’re bearing the agony of impending loss. How do you manage the endless challenges facing you?

Here are two typical baby-boomer scenarios. Susan’s mom, Martha, moved in with her five years ago and suffers from COPD. John cares for his wife, Jane, who’s been struggling with cancer for seven years. Let’s look at their challenges.

Parental caregiving and spousal caregiving present different distresses. With parents, there’s a sense of a natural order to their impending passing, which can soften the pain. However, many caregivers find they experience a spontaneous regression and become the tongue-tied kid or belligerent teenager when dealing with their authoritative parent. Caring for a spouse carries a special pain because this is the person you’re in love with and have been intimate with. When a spouse has to become the parent, it signals the death of the marriage.

These are typical concerns. Although no two situations are alike, certain fears, worries, and concerns are common among caregivers. These tend to center on hygiene, money, decision-making, disrespectful treatment, communication, and strong emotions. In marriages, sex and intimacy issues come into play too. Specifically, here’s what caregivers worry about:

>>Doing something wrong that will cause your loved one to die.

>>Lacking skills or physical strength for caregiving.

>>Not handling finances and legal issues correctly.

>>Having terrible thoughts and emotions and not knowing what to do about them.

>>Not knowing how to communicate effectively with your loved one and family.

>>Getting or accepting help and/or getting loved ones and others to agree to it.

>>Wondering how you can still have a life while caregiving.

Reclaim your life and your relationships with key caregiver strategies.

As a therapist and an 11-year caregiver myself, I have seen many lives and relationships disintegrate under the stress of caregiving. But you have options and choices to create a more positive outcome. By using key strategies, your life and your relationships don’t have to be over! Here are a few to get you started.

Establish expectations, and eliminate second-guessing. First and foremost, get on the same page as the ill person in terms of expectations for everyone involved in their care. If you’re the primary caregiver, discuss and agree on what you’ll expect of each other and what you’re willing to do and not do. No topic is off limits. By collaborating, you’ll avoid having to second-guess, or look back with guilt or regret about your actions. Once these agreements are created, household battles and stress will greatly diminish, leaving a peaceful and happier environment in its place. Communicating collaboratively with your loved one is the single-most helpful practice you can learn and use.

Susan talked about expectations with her mom. Since Martha is of sound mind, Susan realized that, ultimately, it’s Martha’s right to make her own choices. Susan didn’t like that until she considered what she would want if she were sick.

Use basic communication tips and tools. To establish expectations, begin by bringing all of your concerns out into the open—with yourself. Then sort through those concerns to determine which ones you’d like to address. Susan learned to approach her mom using “I statements” and “closed-end” questions, saying: “Mom, I’d like to talk to you about getting more help. Would Tuesday or Thursday be better for you?” She was used to her mom contradicting her, so was glad to learn it was all right to agree to disagree. Martha was very logic-oriented, so Susan spoke to her in her “language,” asking her mom what she thought about an idea rather than how she felt about it.

Understanding and handling strong emotions will lighten your load. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. And they’re normal during these difficult times. But too much pent-up anger or too many disturbing thoughts not only create negative outcomes, they also steal your energy. Try writing down, for your eyes only, all the things you’d really like to say, but won’t.

Manage well-meaning family and friends. John was beside himself dealing with incessant calls about Jane’s condition and unannounced visits from their children and other relatives. Their routine and privacy were disregarded as relatives just took over. John learned that whether family relations are close or strained, people want to help and they want information. This is to be expected and respected, but not necessarily acted upon. He learned how to establish expectations about visits, phone calls, and unsolicited advice with their family and friends.

Avoid enabling. A common mistake caregivers make is thinking everything is their responsibility. This eliminates spare time and creates anger and resentment. To avoid this trap, don’t do for your loved ones what they really can and should do for themselves. Don’t micromanage what they try to do, even though it may be far from perfect. Less enabling, managing, and controlling means more free time and less stress. John had gotten so used to bringing water, pills, books, and other items to Jane all through the day that she was barely getting out of her recliner. Then he realized that his enabling was making her an invalid.

Give yourself permission for self-care. It’s okay to have fun, even if your loved one is suffering. Give yourself permission to enjoy one small thing, whether it’s a short walk in the fresh air or reading a book. As you become comfortable with small steps, branch out to other self-care activities. Keep up friendships, have at least one activity that feels normal and enjoyable, and find at least one confidant. Even though you’re tempted to overdo for your loved one, realize that your physical safety is important. If you break your arm trying to lift your loved one, two people will need caregiving! Get outside help when you’re over your limit.

While it seems that caring for your ill family member is your biggest responsibility, in truth, taking care of yourself is number one. A broken caregiver can no longer be of service. Be gentle and forgiving with yourself.


Diana B. Denholm, PhD, LMHC, is a board-certified medical psychotherapist and author of The Caregiving Wife’s Handbook: Caring for Your Dying Husband, Caring for Yourself. Diana also studied at the University of Connecticut and has practiced therapy for over 30 years. She is a nationally recognized pioneer in the field of caregiver’s health.