I was recently described as an extreme caregiver. I was unfamiliar with the term and unsure if it was an accurate description. Anything that includes the word extreme is not something that I find relatable. I am moderate in most things. What is extreme caregiving, and does the label fit?
Lisa Freitag, the author of Extreme Caregiving: The Moral Work of Raising Children with Special Needs, says, “Extreme caregiving involves the taking on of professional medical roles by a nonprofessional parent. It differs from both ordinary parenting and professional caregiving in that it is done in the home, often without respite or foreseeable endpoint. Unlike professional caregiving, it involves an intensely personal relationship between parent and child.” When you say it like that Lisa, I think I may be an extreme caregiver.
What makes life more challenging for those of us caring for another human for the foreseeable future? Are we able to manage the struggles, even when we have the mindset and tools to cope? What sacrifices are we making to care for our loved ones? These are the first questions that popped into my mind as I contemplated this topic. I do not have the answers to these questions, but I have some thoughts.
Last night as I was getting Emily ready for bed, I realized I had changed 1,000s of diapers. I have been changing diapers for almost 25 years. I started doing the math in my head and lost count repeatedly. Most parents remember the first year of raising a child as being challenging. Infants cannot tell you what they need and interrupt your sleep. They need to be fed and changed every few hours. While parents may miss the baby stage, they are happy when they no longer require so much hands-on attention. The parents get more sleep and time to tend to our own needs. I cannot relate to that parenting experience, because it is not my reality. Emily didn’t sleep through the night until she was 8 or 9 and began taking sleep medications. She still depends on others to feed, change, bathe, and dress her at 22.
I consider myself skilled in managing and adapting to challenging situations. I have not only acquired many stress management tools, but I use them. I implement healthy practices each day that allow me to deal with stressful situations. I exercise regularly, get out into nature, walk, prepare healthy meals, meditate, journal, and practice managing my thoughts. Even with all the resources and knowledge, sometimes I just want to zone out with jelly beans or a glass of wine.
Many caregivers, myself included, have used food, alcohol, binge-watching TV, and other vices to cope with the stress of extreme caregiving. The reality is caring for someone that depends on you is difficult. The job is never-ending, the obstacles are many, and the pay is terrible. Sleep, balanced meals, exercise, and connection are often nonexistent. At the end of the day, when we finally tuck our special, demanding, and often overbearing loved one into bed, we exhale for the first time, and then–we may buffer.
Break out the cheese (or jelly beans). If you give a caregiver a slice of cheese, they may want a glass of wine to go with it. Cheese and wine go great with Netflix or Hulu. Maybe a romance novel or solitaire on our iPad. It feels innocent and luxurious. It has been earned! It fills a desire to escape or forget the heaviness of our day. It is a way to unwind and decompress after a long day of caregiving. We don’t get vacations, days off, or breaks, so we escape on the sofa. It requires no brain power and little effort. Serve. Pour. Hit play. Repeat.
We may use healthy stress management tools a majority of the time, but the number of situations where we are overwhelmed, exhausted, or stressed out is probably higher than the average person. I believe it is a numbers game. Extreme caregivers have more days that are exceptionally challenging. We are busy meeting needs that cannot be tabled until tomorrow (like feeding, sheltering, and clothing loved ones). We cannot take a break and leave tasks undone. We push through until we can take a moment to ourselves. Most days, rather than some days, are exhausting. Hence, more opportunities to decide how we will handle the heaviness, and we are not always going to choose well.
2 thoughts on “Extreme Caregiving Can Influence Our Choices”
This is incredibly well written and important read on extreme caregiving. I like when Billie says – when you put it that way – I guess I am an extreme caregiver! Highly relatable – it’s like you are telling my story.
A raw open honest look at the psychological, emotional, mental, physical, social/ societal impact of extreme caregiving. I might add- A large dose of self compression and self love are called for after reading our resume. ❤️