The vast majority of my social life happens at the grocery store. I usually enter a grocery store on a daily basis for that reason and today I ran into a former neighbour whom I hadn't seen in years; one that I had always liked and respected. After paying for her groceries she stopped what she was doing and came to talk to me.
She first inquired as to how I was doing and then asked about our children and finally about my wife, Sheila, who is now in a long term care facility.
As caregivers we are often asked about those that we care for, so it kind of threw me for a loop when she asked me how I was doing first. It turned into a fairly lengthy conversation, often interrupted by other acquaintances and customers trying to get by me to do their shopping.
I felt good about the conversation and unbeknownst to my neighbour she left me with several statements that gave me food for thought.
The first one was recognition for the many years that I was a caregiver to my wife. I didn't realize there was anyone in the community that actually acknowledged that fact and for some reason that acknowledgement made me realize that I am no longer a caregiver. It was said in past tense. Someone else is doing that now. For most of those years I was a caregiver as well as her advocate, later to become an advocate for a wider group of people in the Huntington's Disease (HD) community.
For many people in the HD community the role of caregiver becomes the new normal. Many become isolated due to the ever present demands of caring for someone with HD. Friends and even relatives often stay away and the overburdened shoulders of the caregiver appear to become stronger. For me, it never felt normal but rather some sick and twisted catastrophe. I aged quickly it seemed, and badly. My health has deteriorated to a level even I had not imagined which is something I rarely speak about.
I had always been a very social person. There were lots of parties and company on a regular basis so the isolation made me bitter; a grumpy old man, so to speak.
Which leads to the other thing she said that made me think about my situation now. She said that many people, particularly male caregivers often don't have activities outside of caregiving but that it was good that I do have activities that came about because of caregiving.
Volunteering is one of the best remedies for empty nesters. A huge void was created when my wife went to a long term care facility and although I'm there a lot, the actual work of caregiving is done by other caring professionals. I get to actually enjoy her and she doesn't feel that she is a burden (which I never felt she was) to me. So, I'm thinking that I was preparing for this void before she left. I had begun my advocacy well before this and I also began to make new friends that I can now actually be friends with. I also adopted a new family in WeHaveAFace.org whom I don't know what I would have done without.
Another proactive thing that I did was see a psychologist to unload this baggage, deal with guilt and sort out how I was feeling. Honestly, I don't know if it helped, but it certainly didn't hurt.
Before writing these thoughts down I looked around online to see how widespread this feeling of an empty nest is and I found a recent article that speaks about how many people are now caring for their loved ones at home due to the rising expense of hospitals and long term care facilities. It gives great advice to those of us facing this problem and for people that may be realizing that their days of caregiving may be nearing an end. You can read this article by clicking here.