I’ve spent the past two years since my Mom’s death wondering if I could have — no, I’ll be totally honest with you — wondering if I should have done more. If only I had looked into clinical trials while she still met the inclusion criteria. If only I had sought out and demanded that she see an expert sooner. If only I had been more patient, more present, more supportive. All of this because no matter how much you give of yourself as a caregiver, you’re always left feeling like you could, no, should have done more. Guilt, fear, exhaustion and stress are the refrain we caregivers hear, on continuous repeat, in our heads.
But what if we could change this? What if we, collectively as a community, could provide the support and encouragement that caregivers need? What if we worked together to change the refrain they (we) hear to something more positive?
My Mom, Shirley, was diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM) in 2008. IBM is a relatively rare inflammatory muscle disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness and wasting. Her diagnosis came after years of our family telling her that the weakness she felt and her frequent falls could easily be solved if she just exercised more often.
Towards the end of her life she was unable to leave the house or even get out of bed. Her muscles had wasted to a point that she couldn’t move her arms or legs. She couldn’t even swallow. My Dad and I took care of her at home until she was admitted to hospice and died shortly thereafter.
The Family Caregiver Alliance reports that 34.2 million Americans have or are providing (unpaid/family) care to an adult aged 50 years or older. 48 percent of caregivers are between the ages of 18-49. This means that most caregivers are starting or already have families of their own to care for, careers to build and tend to, and other commitments beyond their role of caregiver.
Being a caregiver was hard. Literally, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But looking back on it, I realize just how lucky I was. I had a committed co-caregiver in my Dad. I have an incredibly supportive husband who, without hesitation, agreed to move closer to my parents. I also have a great support system of friends and colleagues. Not all caregivers are as lucky. Caregivers report feelings of isolation, chronic stress, depression and symptoms of declining health. Many caregivers have no one to turn to for support and encouragement. They have no one to “cover” for them when they need a break. No one to talk to when they feel that they just can’t continue on another day.
This is why my organization, Patient Empowerment Network, is trying to grow the Empowered Patient Facebook Group. We want it to be a safe, supportive place where patients and caregivers can find the help they need, even if it’s just to swap stories or learn a new “caregiver hack” to make life a little easier. We want to work with you and for you to build a community of empowered patients and caregivers.
A dear friend once told me that we do the best we can in the moment we’re in. Maybe that’s a cop out but, having been a caregiver, I believe it’s true. The trick is reminding ourselves and each other that it’s true. I encourage you to use this community to help share that reminder and, hopefully, change the caregivers’ refrain.
 [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015). Caregiving in the U.S.]