This Reader’s Question brings up a really great point about the way being a family caregiver can cause an unfortunate shift in your relationship with your loved one:

What do you recommend caregivers do to keep some sort of warmth in their relationship with their family member, when all they do is provide care but no longer have any enjoyable interactions with them?. As my parents’ primary caregiver, obviously I take care of their needs. But there is no real enjoyment in our time together any more – it’s just responsibility on top of responsibility. I wish there were some sort of emotional connection, so it would at least feel like a mutually loving interaction. Any suggestions?

~ Feeling Empty


Here is My Response:

Dear Empty,

You are not alone – this is a major complaint among family and spousal caregivers. Because time is limited, caregivers fall into a routine that’s very task-oriented. They tend to be highly conscious of time constraints and the to-do list in their heads, which they’re constantly updating during their visits.

Given this orientation, they also tend to develop a sort of tunnel vision: when they walk into a room, they immediately see and hear everyone’s care needs and demands…and not much else. It’s wonderful that they are so caring and attentive, yet they’re so focused that they forget to relax and take a little time to connect on a social level. They may want to, but then concern about a new potential health issue their loved one brings up, or how something’s going to get handled, distracts them. Before they know it they have to leave, and no social niceties have been exchanged beyond a quick hug and maybe a kiss on the cheek.

Does this sound like you and your loved one(s)?

If so, take heart because you can change this. It means first really seeing the rut you’re in, and starting to get out of it by thinking of new ways to 1) restructure your time, 2) listen purposefully, and 3) create new conversations that reintroduce social connection back into your relationship. As long as there’s no crisis to handle, begin by creating a more relaxed mood – the first step toward enjoyment.

When all we focus on is the responsibilities that come with caregiving, we’re not in the right frame of mind for the social give and take we used to have. When conversations focus solely on their physical and medical requirements, coordinating appointments, daily activities requiring support, etc., you are unknowingly reinforcing that relationship the way it is. Without some fun or heartwarming topics mixed in, that’s all you can expect your relationship to be.

To bring some enjoyment into your time together, and tend to their emotional needs as well, you have to be willing to look at how you interact during that time, and how you can intentionally add in some enjoyable social elements.

Be Self-Aware. Are you tense, distracted? Breathe. Reset your mindset. Experiment with ways to create more of a warm connection with your loved one. Does using humor engage them? Can you share something funny or interesting from recent news events?

Start Small. Mix some personal check-ins into your care-related questions as you take care of other tasks. Make a point of remembering any references to their friends, projects they were working on or even TV shows that they like. Ask for an update on whatever that was that they were interested in enough to mention it. Add these check-ins to your “caregiver to-do list” to make sure you don’t forget them.

Implementing a bigger change, such as carving out some time focused on mutually enjoyable activities, will require a bit more planning.

People tell me all the time that there’s no time for adding more to their schedule. I hear, “I’m too busy taking care of their needs to think about doing something social with them!” They can’t see any new options, and they’re absolutely convinced there aren’t any. That’s just part of being in the rut.

And we breathe…! Remember: In life we have either results…or excuses.

The most important question, of course, is: What is Your Desired Outcome? And how strong is your desire to achieve this outcome? As long as you believe the situation cannot change, it will not change. When you believe it can, AND your desire becomes stronger than your excuses, you will make new things happen. Here’s how:

  1. Ask yourself: What Is My Desired Outcome? Possible example: “I want to have relaxed, comfortable and enjoyable time with my parents (spouse).” Remember to NOT choose an outcome that depends on their feelings or behavior – only what you can control.
  1. Am I willing to explore new care options with an open mind, and without judgment? Here again, start with small steps. What could you create that would help you reach your desired outcome? Who else can help with making a quick trip to the grocery store? What can you order online and have delivered? Could you hire an aide for a couple of hours, or explore daytime care programs? There are ways to reduce the time you spend on daily care tasks, if you are open to exploring them.
  1. What activities were enjoyable for you and your spouse (or parents) in the past? What new ones do you think would appeal to them? Start small, so that you can experience some success through this transition. Pull out old photo albums and take trips down “Memory Lane”. This is especially effective when conversations are otherwise challenging due to cognitive changes, their relative isolation from the world, or if they seem to have lost interest in recreation. Look up “conversation starters” on the internet for an array of topics that might be fun to explore. The point is to be open to new ideas and possibilities because when you feel stuck in all the caregiving responsibilities.
  1. Inform your loved one of your plan. Let themknow that you miss just having time to chat, and want to do something that’s enjoyable for them. If they are cognitively aware and alert, they can even participate in exploring options with you, and you may discover that they’ll even appreciate the change. If you still feel like you can’t see any good options for your particular situation, If you feel overwhelmed by feelings and doubts, access my gift of Guilt Detox to help ease the path…
  1. Carve out the time for socializing. Once you decide on something you’d like to do or talk about, schedule it! It’s important to stay consciously aware of your goal to set aside caregiving responsibilities and just talk during that time. Let your energy and tone shift from “normal” to “enjoyment mode” when the time arrives.
  1. Be Patient with yourself and with your loved ones. This is a change from what has become the norm in your relationship. It may take time before this shift begins to feel natural, because so much of their lives and yours has revolved around only their health and their needs (for many care recipients, that is all they talk about, even with their peers!). Refocusing on more pleasant and enjoyable topics is asking the brain itself to make a shift, so it takes a conscious effort.
  1. Be Patient…Don’t give up! As long as you sincerely want to connect with them, that will come through. So even if they don’t respond in kind for a while, know that what you’re doing is good for both of you and they are receiving it. Allow them the space to respond in whatever ways they respond… Changes take time…

Give yourself the gift of Guilt Detox, and get the support you deserve on your journey to improving your relationships…

And we breathe…
~ Loren

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