Full disclosure: Even though I've been obsessed with health issues my entire life, I've never been interested in working in the medical field. Most of my classmates from my all-girls high school chose nursing as a career, but I was so freaked out by hospitals and illness that I was the only teenager in my class to actively boycott working as a candy striper.
But life has a funny way of catching up with you. So, more than five decades after my high school graduation, I found myself firmly in the throes of a family medical situation, and I was a caregiver. Unfortunately, my husband was battling lung cancer, and I, for the first time ever, had an adult who looked to me to make sure that everything from appointments to comfort level to dietary restrictions to medications was maintained and observed.
Because I was so clueless about the role of caregiver, I did what I always do when I need help: visited my local bookstore. I found exactly what I needed in a comprehensive but lighthearted book called "You'd Better Not Die or I'll Kill You: A Caregivers Survival Guide to Keeping You in Good Health and Good Spirits" by Jane Heller.
The reason I found this book so useful is that Heller wisely avoids the "You need to do A, B, C, etc." approach of lecturing the reader about the right way to care for a loved one. Instead, she shares three helpful resources: her personal experience helping her husband cope with a chronic case of life-threatening Crohn's disease, the insights of other nonmedical individuals who had cared for an ill loved one and advice from a variety of health care professionals.
Not everyone in Heller's book is dealing with a sick spouse. "Dear Abby" columnist Jeanne Phillips tells about the conflicts that arise when a parent is older and ill. And we also learn about the challenges involved when caring for a sick child. So why did a successful author of romantic comedies tackle such a daunting subject? "I wanted to help all of us take care of ourselves so we're able to take care of those we love. ... I wanted to express (and encourage you to express) the emotions we all have when caring for a loved one but are often too guilt-ridden, fearful, or embarrassed to say what's really on our minds. ... I wanted to reach out to other Caregivers ... and let them vent or offer inspiration or serve up a helpful tip or two. ... I wanted to be the cheery, knowledgeable companion I wish I had had."
According to the Caregiver Action Network, 40% to 70% of caregivers exhibit some symptoms of clinical depression. And if you are caring for a spouse, your symptoms of depression or anxiety maybe as much as six times higher than that of noncaregivers. If you are caring for a parent, that rate will be twice as high as for noncaregivers. This is important information because more than 90 million Americans are currently caregivers, which means a large percentage of the adult population in the U.S. is walking around feeling stretched and pulled in a variety of different directions.
One thing I learned being my husband's caregiver is that my disappointments, fears and tears would not help his situation. My job was to be fully in control and completely in the moment. If I hadn't avoided the candy stripers back in 1966, I probably would have known that already.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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