“I feel exhausted. Totally drained,” said Scott, the 53-year-old son of a mother suffering from chronic back pain and frequent falls, during a recent therapy session. His voice was low and his face downcast. For four years, he’d been going to his mother’s house to help her several days a week. Recently, he’d regularly visited her in the hospital after she’d been admitted for a severe kidney infection. He felt spent.
Scott’s fatigue wasn’t physical. When he wasn’t on caregiving duty, he had the energy to play softball for his company team and go dancing with his wife. But each time he arrived at his mother’s house and she handed him her latest to-do list, his spirits sagged. He loved his mother and was as committed to helping her as much as ever. But he was beginning to think of the warmhearted woman who’d raised him as a never-ending source of chores.
This is among the most unfortunate effects of long-term caregiving on family caregivers. Most of them start their caregiving journeys with noble intentions, high enthusiasm and robust vigor. But the months and years of caregiving routine wear them down psychologically so that their once gung-ho approach to caregiving becomes ho hum — resigned and dispirited. They wind up mechanically and listlessly going through the daily motions of doing what needs to be done. In the process, they lose touch with the essence of caregiving — helping someone they love because, well, they love that person.
Scott didn’t want to regard his mother largely as a relentless taskmaster. When he treated her that way, sighing slightly or staring blankly as he scanned her latest to-do list, she felt hurt, and then he felt guilty. So how can he and other emotionally depleted caregivers replenish themselves and rekindle their enthusiasm for caregiving? Here are some ideas.
Prioritize connection over task completion
It’s true that family caregivers usually have so many caregiving tasks — from paying bills to picking up meds to hands-on dressing and grooming — that they can’t wait to get through them each day. But being “do-ers” all the time can have a strangely paradoxical effect: Rather than putting the person they’re caring for at the center of their attention, checking tasks off a list can itself become an all-consuming preoccupation. Caregivers become masterful at managing chores but less emotionally engaged with the person they’re sacrificing their time and energy to help.