It never ceases to amaze me how much work many people put in to supporting friends and relatives through illness and difficulty. I have seen so many cases of quiet kindness, where those I have the privilege to know allow themselves to be of use to those around them.
THE POLITICS OF CARING
What I have learned, by watching such carers, is that caring is not just about the basic care. There is a world of politics to be negotiated. If you are helping a family member, then there is the issue of negotiating responsibilities, finances, and legalities. If helping a friend, there are often the same issues, but with more difficulty, since a non-family carer can be treated by the family as a third party.
People who care for others are often great at doing the helping bit, but not so skilful when it comes to looking after themselves. The burden of negotiation can become unbearable if family relations are strained. It can seem so tempting to walk away and leave everyone else to it. Equally, one can feel so trapped, if walking away isn’t an option.
PLANNING RECOVERY TIME
It becomes very important to time-limit efforts. This can be extremely hard for a carer to do, especially if caring is in your nature. But if you don’t put your foot down, others around you can end up taking you for granted, and not realising how close you are to the limits of your endurance.
Carers often have a well-developed language of care (“How are you?” “How can I help?”), but can have a very under-developed language of self-assertion. Many extremely kind people find it almost impossible to draw a line around their responsibilities, even if it would keep them healthy to do so.
BUILDING A SUPPORT NETWORK
Until too late, carers often do not realise where their strength comes from. You can only starve yourself of time, energy and resources for so long, before you have to consider withdrawing altogether to maintain your sanity.
To prevent this happening, it can be wise to build up a strong sense of where your power and energy comes from, and to protect carefully and consistently that source of recovery time, energy, and resource.
THREE TIPS FOR CARERS
In keeping with the above, I’d suggest three things to consider, if you spend significant time caring for friends or relatives:
Attend to the politics early. What I mean by this is, try to negotiate who is to do what in advance. Otherwise, it is very easy to end up being ‘the one who looks after everything’. It can be very hard to do, especially if you don’t like upsetting people, but a bit of negotiating early on, can avoid months of lonely and unsupported caring later on.
Find your me-time, and stick to it. In other words, know exactly when your protected time exists, and defend it with great effort. It is extremely easy to agree to encroachments on your protected time, and in the end to let it dwindle to nothing. But, in the end, this can turn you into an exhausted and resentful or anxious wreck!
Build your ‘pit stop team’. A racing driver drives like mad, but always knows who is looking after them and their car. There is always a tightly-knit team whose job it is to care for the essentials, and make sure the driver is happy. How much more are you worth as a carer! So make sure you choose, carefully, a lovely, small team of people who are prepared to keep you happy and on the road.
It is a privilege to meet, every day, those who take it upon themselves to care for others.
From watching very kind people take on extraordinary tasks, I have noticed that the most effective carers negotiate in advance the parameters of care, protect their me-time assertively, and have a great ‘pit-stop team’ around them.
If you find yourself drained from caring efforts, it may help you to attend to these skills and resources.