Fifteen minutes after I started writing this column, my best friend called. He lives in Los Angeles and we talk, on average, four or five times a week. In some of the most challenging times of our lives, we’ve supported each other. Simply hearing each other’s voices and laughter, being able to complain about “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” and sharing our victories makes our lives richer and more joyful.
It’s a long-known and increasingly proven fact that social interaction, especially with people we consider friends—especially good friends—helps us become and stay healthier, and live longer. Social isolation, the bane of caregiving, leads to cognitive decline and a range of other mental and physical deteriorations. But, here’s a reality: if you want to find out who your true friends are, become a caregiver.
So many caregivers are amazed that people with whom they’ve shared some of the most significant times of their lives fade away when caregiving rears its head. High school and college experiences, weddings, children, professional successes and failures, substance abuse challenges; none of these can have the chilling effect on a friendship as the responsibilities of caregiving.
Why would friends start distancing themselves at a time when being a friend could mean so much? There are four basic reasons:
First, they simply do not know what to say or do. If some of your friends have not been caregivers, they are often at a loss. They envision you being busy 24 hours a day (not an unrealistic thought) and don’t want to intrude.
Next, they don’t want to see/hear/smell/touch the reality of caregiving, because they know that, one day, they will be caregivers. We all have ideas about future life experiences that probably won’t be positive. Some people spend time preparing for those eventualities, while others have an “I’ll deal with it when I have to deal with it” mentality. Neither way is right or wrong, and everyone has their own way.
Third, their own reality is so challenging, they can not take on more stress. The best thing to do with these folks is wish them the best and try to reach out when one or the other of you reaches a plateau of respite.
Finally, they were superficial friends in the first place. We all have friends who are good folks, fun to be around and can be helpful in circumstances that are not too trying but will cut and run at the first sign of a real challenge. Again, this is neither good or bad in the grand scheme of things; it’s simple reality.
If you have friends who are caregivers or, if you are a caregiver and want to maintain friendships during your experience, here are a few things to consider:
Here’s the big one for caregivers who want to keep friendships: Don’t spend all your time with your friends talking about how difficult it is being a caregiver. After a few minutes of your purge, many of your friends will switch off, and they won’t want to be around you in the future, because they know it will be same song, different tune.
If people ask, “What can I do?” tell them. Have a list of helpful chores or efforts and simply say, “Here are some things I need done, which would you be comfortable doing?” Making a meal, sitting with your friend’s loved one or running errands are all possible activities.
One of the best ways for caregivers to maintain friendships and support their own sanity is to have a ritual that gets them away from the one they are caring for—even if only or a short period of time—and into a different environment. Taking a regular walk with a friend, having coffee or playing golf, a weekly or monthly dinner with friends can all be ways to stay in touch and involved.
Friends of caregivers need to move past the, “am I intruding?” mentality. A quick phone call, especially with a caring (and sometimes humorous) comment is usually welcome.
Keep inviting the caregiver to get together. Simply giving them the opportunity to say, “No,” shows them they are still wanted and needed.
As a friend, offer yourself in ways that allow you to share time with the caregiver. While together, don’t judge how they give care or are living life; caregiving is a different experience for everyone. Simply listen and … be.
The reality is that some friendships do not survive high school or college, moving to another city (or, down the street), divorce, or other life challenges. Caregiving, for many people, is the current life challenge.
I am both proud and humbled by the fact that my relationship with my best friend not only weathered both of our caregiving experiences, it was made stronger because of them.
Mike Collins is the producer of the video, “Care for the Caregiver,” winner of a National Caregiver Friendly Award. For more caregiving tips, visit www.crazycaregiver.com.