QUESTION: My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in May. Since then, I have lost all direction. I have three children—a 10-year-old son, and two daughters, ages 6 and 3. I feel as if I have let them down in these few short months. I have a brother who has been no help in taking care of our mother. He has not offered to take her to her chemo treatments, which are 75 miles away. I have missed work and lost time with my family and I’ve found myself slipping in and out of depression. I have been unable to keep my home clean and meals on the table for my children. What can I do to get out of this rut I have created and still be there for my mother?—Natalie
DEAR NATALIE: I am so sorry about your mother’s diagnosis. You are to be thanked and respected for stepping into the role as solo caregiver. While nothing feels doable, I assure you with some adjustments you can find your footing again.
First, you have to reframe your thinking in order to move forward and find solutions to your challenges. Under no circumstances have you “created” this situation. Your mother’s illness has hit you very hard and the depression you feel is real and normal. You are in crisis and need help. Your depleted physical, emotional and spiritual state can’t continue. You must find a way to break the cycle as it is now unfolding. One way to do that is to find out if you are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows a worker up to 12 work weeks of unpaid job protected leave to care for a close family member such as your mother. To learn more, go to the Department of Labor website at www.dol.gov. If this is financially possible at all, this time will allow you to locate the help that is available to you and your family. Then, locate the agencies that can provide you with a respite. Go to www.thefamilycaregiver.org. This is the website of the National Family Caregivers Association. There are people there who are trained to lead you to support systems in your community.
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As for your brother: Is there a chance that his inability to help is a lifelong pattern? Think back. Were you always the family caregiver? If this is true, then your brother is still acting out that pattern. Tell him you need to talk with him. When you have his full attention, ask calmly and kindly for his help. Tell him exactly what you need him to do to help care for your mother. Often people want to help, but they just don’t know how. Hopefully, this is the case with your brother. If not, and he simply refuses to help, you must let go of any hope that he will assist you. At this time, any anger or resentment toward him will only deplete you further. This isn’t the time to try and repair lifelong family dysfunction.
Know that you have not let your children down. In fact, just the opposite is true. You are a compassionate and empathic role model. The lessons they are learning will serve them well in the future. It will not harm your children, even at their young ages, to learn that others often come first—in this case, their grandmother. Plus, your son is old enough to be of help to you. Delegate chores and recognize “teachable” moments for your children. Be as open and honest with them about the situation as you feel you can be. Pull on your inner resources to remain calm and patient with them. Let them know that the four of you are a team and need to work together.
More than anything else you need to find a way to care for yourself. Somehow you must replenish your physical, emotional and spiritual resources so you can move through this roadblock to get to a place where you are in control and meeting the challenges you have been handed. If you feel you need to see a mental health professional to steer you back to wellness, make that your first priority. Caregivers cannot offer healthy, healing care to others if they have nothing left to give.
Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.comor Amazon.com.