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Caregiving can turn into Co-dependency: time to get help for yourself and your loved one


The process of taking care of an elderly loved one usually starts out slow like any relationship. Even if its your mother and you have a relationship the beginning of the caretaking process is a new chapter in your lives that you are starting that you have not experienced before.
It usually starts out slow with you noticing mom struggling either physically or cognitively with daily things such as paying bills, missing meals, not cleaning the house, maybe an illness comes upon the person that slows him or her down and so on. At that time you usually start to collect your data about what is going on and you begin to address the needs as they come up. The needs are often minimal, do not require much of your time and frankly you like doing it because you want to help your loved one.
Then one day the caregiving begins to take on a life of its own. Usually the caregiver first notices it during the time of a crisis. The elderly loved one falls or goes into hospital for surgery, maybe has very bad flu or pneumonia at home and gets weak. The caregiver starts to go over the home more, be attentive to the person’s needs and finds that the caregiving becomes overwhelming at times trying to balance helping the elderly person and taking care of his or her own family.

The crisis time is overwhelming and it is the first realization of what full time caregiving is, but the caregiver knows that the crisis will end, the elderly person will go back to his or her level of functioning and everyone’s life goes back to normal.

But what is normal? Normal is that sense of reality that we live everyday. If I am single than normal to me is having a date, eating alone or going out with friend. Normal for married life is having dinner with spouse and life together. In other words normal is the reality in which we live. For caregivers, normal can be going over to mom’s one time a week to pay bills, get her groceries, etc. When a crisis hits, normal changes but when the crisis is over our expectation is we will go back to normal.

But what happens over time when normal starts to change? It happens to all of us. Again if I am single and normal is a date or dinner with a friend but then I get married normal then changes. If I start taking care of mom and I go one time of week and that is normal but a stroke happens and mom is now paralyzed on one side, my normal has now just permanently changed.

What caregivers don’t realize is that they never really adjust to normal after the crisis. When you are single and you get married, you end up adjusting to this new life where you are now partnered with someone and the expectation is you will do things together, help each other maybe raise kids together. We go into that with wonderful and hopeful expectations that our feelings will be positive. No one goes into caregiving for an elderly person with the expectation that we will do things together – as a result of the caregiving, no one goes into the caregiving relationship with the expectation that we will partnered, joined at the hip, enjoying this new found time we have together. Now please don’t hear this wrong. You may have a wonderful relationship with an elderly loved one and yes, you may feel that caregiving gives you that extra time to spend with that person that you might not have had. I am not talking about that.

I am talking about the relationship between a caregiver who starts out with good intentions of helping and ending up in a very challenging dysfunctional marriage to their elderly loved one. See over time the relationship that started out as me feeling good cause I could come once a week to pay bills turns into mom calling me and asking why I can’t come over that day. The normal feelings that I have experience of going over when I planned or can turns into a dependency that gets ugly and stirs up alot of old feelings, resentments and other such history between us.

For example, a mother who had a rocky relationship with daughter can be at first thankful that the daughter helps out. But as soon as the aging process takes over, the brain starts changing, maybe a memory impairment starts, that same mother can turn hostile and demanding often exhibiting old behaviors of being demanding and controlling on her children that they rebelled against as kids. The children who are now the caregivers start reacting to her behavior, the same way they did as children. This starts a boatload of feelings in the caregiver that they sometimes cannot express because they realize it does no good. Mom is always right, she will just deny it, she always has. So a new caregiving relationship that started out one time a week with the caregiver feeling okay or good about helping out now starts to turn to dysfunction. What was once normal is now a new normal. What was once feelings of okay, maybe positive during that weekly visit is now dread. Is she going to make me feel guilty or bad about something when I visit? Lately I cannot do enough for her, nothing is ever good enough.
If you find yourself saying these things, you need to get some support because you are probably reacting to her behavior. In similar we do the same thing with our teenagers. One day they are these cut wonderful kids and then somehow that normal day turns into a nightmare of odd behavior, unusual interests and talk and we now have a new normal day with the teenagers. Adjusting to the new normal is not easy and as caregivers we have to look at ourselves. Not that we are doing something wrong or bad to feel guilty about but rather, am I reacting to what my elderly loved is doing or saying? What history does that behavior hold for me? If she did that to me as a kid am I reacting as I did then?

If these reactions are occurring then you might be co-dependent with your elderly loved one. This means you have trouble identifying where you stop and the elderly person starts. You have lost boundaries. The ability to act on situations than react and the ability to know that it is okay to say no and that you don’t have to feel guilty about that.

If you think you are burned out and need some help, please consider contacting in-home senior care provider Comfort Keepers in your area for suggestion and tips on how to find help in your area. If you live in southeastern PA and need help in Delaware County PA or communities in Montgomery, Chester or Philadelphia County PA, click HERE. Comfort Keepers of Delaware County PA offers free caregiver support group the second Tuesday of month at 6pm.

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