If you’re caring for someone with advancing illness, you know that your caregiving journey will end, and you may have a pretty good idea how. You may have prepared yourself to expect a variety of perfectly normal reactions, including sorrow, relief, loneliness, anger, numbness, and guilt. But many caregivers, particularly those who provided round-the-clock care for years, may also find themselves completely unprepared for life after caregiving. When their role as caregiver ends, so does the familiar routine.
The good news is that former caregivers are often better prepared for this transition than they think. Caregiving requires such skills as organization, efficiency, compassion, financial savvy, and the ability to cope with stress. These are the kinds of tools that will serve post-caregivers well as they move on to the next phase of life. Moreover, the knowledge that caregiving was meaningful and worthwhile can boost confidence.
If you’ve put your life on hold to provide the physical care and emotional support that your loved one needed, you may now face the daunting prospect of finding a new purpose, or simply new ways to fill your time. Here are some tips to ease the transition:
Grieve at your own pace. Everyone is different, and there is no right amount of time to take. “It can take a couple of years for a surviving spouse to process that their mate is gone,” says Vince Corso, M.Div, LCSW-R, a spiritual adviser who works primarily with people at the end of life. “The intensity of sadness will diminish, but if you still have the same level of immobility at the fourth or six month as you did at the first, reach out to a professional,” suggests Corso. Put off making big changes or decisions for at least six months.
Caregiving is stressful, and losing a spouse is one of the most stressful events a person experiences. “It’s very common for caregiving spouses to neglect their health because they are so focused on their mate’s illness,” says Corso. “Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, and get a baseline physical just to be sure everything is okay.”
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Look into programs that offer bereavement support, and don’t worry that it’s been too long. In fact, Corso says that it often takes several months. “There’s so much turmoil and so much to attend to at first, and the reality of the loss begins to set in after three to five months. That’s when the bereaved person gets a picture of what their grief is going to be like, and when they often need counseling and bereavement support.”
It’s an excellent bet you’ve been out of circulation for far too long. Meet a friend for coffee or simply pick of the phone or send a note. “Evenings are often when the absence is felt most profoundly—around mealtime, after dinner, getting into an empty bed,” says Corso. So consider accepting that invitation to dinner, or make a plan to go to a play or ballgame in your community.
Engage your brain with a neglected old favorite or a brand new enthusiasm. This can also be a great way to incorporate social activity in a low-key way, whether it’s joining a knitting or quilting circle, taking a class, or playing golf. But it’s just as great to simply get caught up on your reading.
Caregiving can be isolating, and you may have disengaged from community—church or synagogue, civic organizations, or social activities—as your loved one’s illness progressed. As you’re ready, explore activities you used to be involved in at your own pace.
Remember that depression is different from sadness or grief. “We’re uncomfortable with sadness and its intensity,” says Corso. “The difference can be subtle, but sadness might be communicated like, ‘I miss my wife,’ and depression like, ‘I’m useless, I have nothing to live for now that she’s gone.’”