When you become the caregiver for an older loved one with Alzheimer's, a lot of things in your life may start to change.
You have a new set of important responsibilities - you're likely doing more cleaning and more meal prep to accommodate the needs of having another person in your home. You might be dispensing medications that require a strict schedule, need to drive your loved one to doctors' appointments and take them to run errands they can no longer do alone. Some of these tasks may even take longer than they used to as the physical limitations caused by late-stage Alzheimer's begin to set in.
With all these new tasks to fit in to your day, you'll find you have less free time than you used to. As a result, you may find yourself making changes to your work schedule, cutting down on group classes at your gym during the week or spending less time going out with friends.
"Give yourself a healthy outlet and some personal recovery time."
It's important for caregivers to not lose focus of taking care of themselves when they begin taking care of a loved one, however. If you don't give yourself a healthy outlet and some personal recovery time, you can easily become overworked, stressed and burnt out. Not only is that not good for your own health and wellbeing, but it will be harder for you to properly care for your loved one.
One of the best ways for you to get the support you need and be able to hit the pause button every once and a while is to maintain strong social ties with good friends. They can give you someone to talk to, or to distract you with different topics for a while. They may also be able to lend a hand from time to time if you need it, so that you can go out and do something fun for yourself.
But how you keep up your social life when you become a caregiver will differ greatly from what you were used to before. You need to prepare for there to be some changes to your friend group, and learn ways to maintain the valuable connections that remain.
When friendships fade
Relationships are complex. They require different people to come together and share common goals or interests. It takes effort and support from both sides in order for them to flourish. When one person stops doing their share, the dynamics of the relationship change, and sometimes can't survive.
It's a difficult reality we all face throughout our lives, especially when we face big life changes, like becoming a caregiver.
Sometimes, it's the friends who change, as AARP addresses. People may begin to distance themselves from you, perhaps even unconsciously. Some may be too uncomfortable with the role you've had to take on - they may see it as too much responsibility, something that's too serious and heavy for them to want to acknowledge. Perhaps they have a hard time facing challenges and can't handle the reminder that a disease like Alzheimer's could one day impact them or someone they love. Maybe some were once in a position to be a caregiver but had reasons they couldn't do it, which could be the source of a lot of complicated feelings for them.
As a result of any of these situations, people may stop coming around as often. They could be slower to return phone calls, and may not reach out themselves anymore. Some friends may even be up front with you and let you know that it's hard for them to spend as much time with you as they used to.
These can be difficult losses. It's hard to lose friends, especially if people are leaving your life in your time of need and you had been there for them when things were tough.
It's OK for you to feel sad and mourn the loss of these friendships, but try not to dwell on them. Relationships change for all kinds of reasons - that's just a natural part of life. They likely still care about you very much, but for whatever reason are unable to fulfill their end of the relationship bargain and give you the time and support that you need during this time.
Instead of focusing negative thoughts on these losses, remind yourself that these former friends also have their own complex lives. It's not a reflection or judgment on you if they are unable to maintain their social ties with you during this time. You should also try to concentrate on the positive things in your life, especially the good friendships you do have.
However, it's not always the other people who cause a friendship to fade away. Many caregivers struggle to maintain their outside relationships when they're dedicating so much time to their work at home. You may find yourself constantly turning down invitations to go anywhere, fearing that there's too much for you to do for a timeout to be feasible. Caregivers can even feel guilty for taking a break to go do something fun with friends, thinking that it somehow makes them selfish for not physically being there for their loved one.
This is, of course, not the case. Taking time to yourself will make you a better caregiver by improving your morale and letting you rest and recharge. According to a study from Health and Human Services, caregivers experience higher rates of stress, anxiety and depression if they don't have a strong support system. Maintaining your social circle is critical for your health, and by proxy, the health of the people you take care of.
While each relationship is different and has different requirements for staying healthy, there are a few general steps to follow for keeping up your friendships once you become a caregiver:
- Don't shut people out. When experiencing a new challenge, your default coping mechanism may be to withdraw from other people. You might not feel like you have the emotional energy or the time to engage with anyone else. If you're feeling depressed, you may be losing interest in the things you used to enjoy. Maybe you feel embarrassed by the ordeal your loved one is going through and want to protect them by keeping your lives more private.
While it may feel hard to let people in during this time, it's important that you do. Friends are reaching out because they care about you and want to be there for you. There's no need to feel guilty for taking them up on their offers to help or to be a compassionate listener if you need to talk - they offer because you matter to them. Even if you can't go out as much as you'd like to or can't always take their calls, be sure to let them know that you appreciate them and want them to try to catch you again at another time. That way they won't start to feel like you just don't want to hear from them and start to fade away from you.
- Be a friend back. If you want to keep good friends in your life, you need to be a good friend to them, too. Be the one who reaches out first every once and a while, and not just because you need something. Take an interest in how they're doing and ask about their lives. While it's good to use your social network to talk about your life as a caregiver, engage in other conversational topics from time to time as well. Talk about other parts of your day, the news or a favorite show. Tell them positive stories about caregiving and don't just use your time with them to vent the frustrations you may feel at times. They'll appreciate hearing your good news and happy stories.
- Communicate honestly. Keep your friends informed if your circumstances change. Your loved one may need an extended medical stay, for example - let your friends know what's going on to help them set their expectations about their time with you. If your loved one progresses into the later stages of Alzheimer's and requires more attention, they should know that your availability is changing. When they're in the loop from the get go, it helps them to understand you better and what your availability might be.
Communicating honestly also means you thank you friends when they come through for you, or let them know when their distance is starting to hurt you. People can't change what they don't know is bothering you, and it's easier to keep supporting someone when you know your efforts are wanted and appreciated.
- Set aside time to be social and stick to it. Whether you give yourself an hour every day dedicated solely to sitting down to call a friend or connect to people on social media, or you plan a weekly lunch date with a small group, it's important that you set aside time to be social. If you just keep telling people "We should get together sometime!" with no real plans, it'll quickly fall off your radar. By building social time into your schedule and treating it as seriously as you would an important work meeting or doctor's appointment, you'll ensure that you get the interactions that you need to stay socially fulfilled.
And it doesn't always have to be a big event. Even stepping out for a quick cup of coffee, inviting someone over for a short card game or taking a walk around the block with a neighbor can be a refreshing way to connect with friends.
Making new friends
If your social circle starts to get a little too small, or your new schedule creates too many conflicts with those you normally spent time with, you should consider reaching out to meet some new people. You can find a support group in your area for other caregivers, so you can forge friendships with people who understand your needs and the changes in your life. You could volunteer for a local organization that you care about, or take join an adult sports league.
There are plenty of ways to get out and connect with people if you're willing to take the initiative to see what your community offers. Set aside the time to be social every once and awhile. It'll be good for you, and for your loved one, too.
You may reach a point where your loved one requires more time and attention than you're able to provide. Complete the Sunrise Care Questionnaire to help you determine what kind of external support might best benefit you and your loved one.
Source: Sunrise Senior Living