My Seven Caregiver Lessons
What supporting elderly parents and my husband through stage IV cancer has taught me.
(Wife and Caregiver)
We all have roles we play in life. I have lived my share: daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher. For the past six years I have been a caregiver.
I began caring for my husband six years ago when he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I also help care for his parents who both have dementia and my parents as they have encountered health problems in later years.
Caregiving has been an undertaking that is both fulfilling and overwhelming—an honor and a back-breaking burden.
From the beginning of my husband’s diagnosis, I decided I was going to live out this time with no regrets. I have striven to give my all, make the most of each moment, and celebrate the victories, no matter how small.
My seven caregiver lessons.
Six years later, I have learned many lessons. The first is that I struggle to give tips or advice to other caregivers. Each journey is its own, each person’s approach unique. However, within the caregiving community, it can be helpful to recognize similarities in our stories. In that spirit, here are some caregiver lessons I have learned:
1. Be willing to slow down.
When Dan was diagnosed with cancer, he was told remission was never an option. He had a terminal illness. While Dan is a person of faith, this was still a lot to take in. I would often find him sitting on the porch in the quiet. He would take my hand and say, “Sit with me.” At that point in life, I had a million things to do. I didn’t have time to sit. I learned to sit. The time we have together is important. The meals we share. The walks we take. Those quiet moments. This is what we have and I will make the most of each. The other tasks will be waiting for me when I am done.
2. Exhaustion is real.
Our tasks seem to multiply when someone is sick. There are extra needs for cleaning and dietary restrictions to meet. The jobs around the house that Dan used to do are often waiting for me. So many times at the end of the day I simply feel exhausted. I have learned to accept that as a part of my reality. I try to cope and allow myself a few minutes watching the Game Show Network without feeling guilty. Often going to bed early, I leave my door open in case Dan needs something. I try to be aware of self-care and keep up with yearly physicals. But exhaustion is real.
3. Support matters.
As my husband watched my life become an endless array of tasks, he recognized that I needed support and helped to develop a caregiver support group at our church. I was partly insulted. I had never needed a support group before. This was just one more thing I had to do. Six years later, the members of that group are always there to listen. I have been able to discuss heart breaks and despair. We have laughed and cried. In addition to the support group, I have friends to go out to lunch with and others who pay attention to our situation. I think Dan knew that one day I will need support that doesn’t involve him and he has helped grow that system over the last six years.
4. Faith does not cancel out emotions.
Dan and I believe in the power of God to heal. But that healing may not take place on this earth. That leaves me angry, disappointed and very, very sad. When we enter a week of scans and results, my anxiety climbs. If the results are bad, I cry. If the results are good, I cry. This cancer journey is full of emotional ups and downs. That doesn’t mean I don’t have faith. It means I hurt. I am sad for the pain Dan feels, for the lost dreams and disappointments. But recognizing my emotions as real and legitimate can help.
5. Dreams don’t die, but they may evolve.
Early in our marriage, Dan’s grandparents celebrated their 65th anniversary. I decided that was all I wanted: 65 years of marriage. Dan asked if it had to be 65 years in a row or if he could have a break in the middle. Now, I am grateful for the 32 years we have had. Dan worked several years to write a book about his life with cancer so that one day his grandchildren would be able to get to know him through the book in case they never get to meet him. Life may not turn out the way we hope or expect, but we can do our best to see our dreams evolve.
6. See every day as a gift.
We have plans in a few weeks for our 32nd wedding anniversary. We will be together in the hospital in Philadelphia where Dan will have a procedure to avoid liver failure for a while longer. Not romantic on the outside, but we have made it another year. I have always loved to celebrate, but since cancer has joined in, each milestone seems like such a special victory. Another birthday. Another Father’s Day. Our daughter’s graduation. This year I forgot to bake a cake for his “cancerversary” when we celebrate another year since his diagnosis. But cake or not, every day is a gift and I strive to see them as such.
7. Hope remains alive.
I love surprises. But I do not enjoy surprises when it comes to Dan’s health struggles. I try to stay grounded in reality at all times. However, hope remains alive even in the most dire circumstances. I hope we have another day together. When we don’t, I hope there will be others around me. I hope Dan’s story will live on for our possible grandchildren to hear. I hope someone sees my story and feels hope for their life. Each day that I can care for those I love, I have hope. Hope and faith makes putting another step forward possible.
There are plenty more caregiving lessons I could share, which is why I recently created my own video series, Nancy’s Caregiver Journal.
However, there are times I wish I was not a caregiver because there was no need for it. I long for Dan to wake up and be healthy and whole. I wish our parents could revisit their youth. As that is unlikely, this is the role I fulfill at this time in my life. I try to treasure each moment, and take a nap when possible.
To see more caregiver lessons from Nancy Nicewonger, check out, Nancy’s Caregiver Journal. “Some are serious, and some are silly, which is a snapshot of my life,” she says.
For more help with finding gratitude, see Every Day is a Gift.
Would you like to learn more about the person of Jesus? See Beyond Blind Faith.