Margaret didn't use to spend her holidays mostly alone. In the past she'd enjoyed inviting friends and neighbors over for Christmas cheer. But after her father moved into her house because of his Parkinson's disease, she slowly withdrew from socializing with others. She lacked spare energy for entertaining, she told herself, though she found she missed her old friends and the pleasure their lively conversations had given her.
Margaret's increasing social isolation is a common but unfortunate condition for many family caregivers. Research has shown that social support helps us withstand a wide range of adversities. Whether that means talking out our troubles with confidantes or receiving casseroles from kind friends or neighbors, we generally feel better when we know that others care for us. But the longer family caregivers provide help to loved ones, the less social support they usually receive.
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Why does this happen? It occurs, in part, because some friends and neighbors — even other family members — gradually distance themselves over time from the caregiver and the caregiving situation. It may be that they tire of hearing about the rigors of caregiving or don't want to be reminded that these kinds of challenges are a normal part of family life.
For whatever the reason, it is often an embittering experience for caregivers when they discover that some of the people they've always relied on are actually fair-weather friends. Loss of social support, however, also can be caused by the choices caregivers make.
They may become so consumed with caregiver duties, tightly organizing each day around those tasks, that they stop nurturing other relationships and neglect their own enjoyment. Guilt about going out socially may keep them cloistered at home, rather than seeing socializing as a source of necessary replenishment.
Believe in social sustenance
It is not enough for family caregivers to be constantly told that they need to reach out to others. They must believe — or at least be willing to test out — that it will help sustain them by renewing their morale and energies. When caregivers embrace the idea that seeing friends makes them hardier, then they no longer suffer guilt over having fun.
Fiercely protect slotted social time
There will always be pressing demands and pushy care recipients who, out of selfishness or envy, will protest every time their caregivers consider going out. But those in this trying role should schedule social time on at least a weekly basis that they won't cancel for anything less than a full-blown emergency. It could be for lunch, a walk in the park or a chat over coffee. When caregivers engage in these types of activities regularly, they gain a greater sense of control over their own lives that prevents feelings of helplessness and depression.
Choose understanding companions
If not all help is really helpful, then it stands to reason that not all social connections are truly supportive. The last thing a caregiver wants is to spend time with a "friend" who can't comprehend her devotion to the care recipient and offers unsolicited advice that comes across as criticism. Instead, people looking after loved ones should seek out those who understand the caregiving impulse and mission. Sometimes that means other family caregivers in similar circumstances they meet at support groups. These can be in-person groups at hospitals and churches or online groups through AARP and disease-specific organizations; both provide comparable amounts of emotional uplift.
Keep it short and sweet
Family caregivers don't require dinner and a movie to feel fully recharged (though such an evening would be nice). Breaking up the drudgery of a careworn day with occasional phone calls, emails and texts with other family members can bring lightness. Particularly humorous exchanges can even have the salutary effects of a mini-respite. More important, these contacts with the outside world can serve as reminders that others continue to value the caregiver and the caregiving, and that although she sometimes feels alone with her difficult work, she isn't.
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