Stretching to Cover:
The Caregiver's Guide to Managing Multiple Roles

Mary A. Languirand, PhD & Robert F. Bornstein, PhD

The typical caregiver has many roles--daughter or son, spouse, parent, co-worker, friend, congregant.....the list goes on. Some of these are supporting roles, but some are leading roles with multiple responsibilities. The juxtaposition of large and small, crucial and trivial, short-term and long-term requires a lot of cognitive and emotional readjustment. It sounds easy until you try to do it. The sheer energy required to shift perspective from one role to another is one part of the stress. Weighing competing views and opinions is another. When everybody needs a piece of you, budgeting your time and energy becomes a complex balancing act.

We're always amazed at the flexibility shown by many caregivers. There you are, talking on the cell phone with children, or directing clients or office staff on important matters as you tote drugstore bags with Mom's favorite lipstick and hand lotion, her laundry neatly folded in a duffle on the other arm. When you think about all the steps involved in those tasks, and all the details you're juggling, it's amazing you can keep it all straight. But what's the impact--what's the cost?

Great thinkers encourage us to 'live in the moment,' and savor life as it happens. It's a terrific idea, but when you have many roles the actual experience is very different--at any given moment, you must think about your next move, your next meeting, next week, next month, and next year. Someone recently remarked that most days they begin work while still in the shower--funny, but true. The shower, the drive to work, and other moments of 'down time' can quickly be absorbed in thinking about our responsibilities. We ruminate about work while driving, focus on the kids' recital during a meeting, generate a grocery list at the recital. The result is the feeling of always being 'elsewhere' or in the 'wrong' mode. This is less of a problem while in the shower than it is when you're behind the wheel (since research suggests that half of all car accidents are due to driver distraction), but it's still a problem.

People are often surprised to see the data on multitasking. Not only is the practice actually less efficient than doing one thing at a time, it also has emotional costs. Not being fully present in what's happening causes you to miss events going on around you--you're there, but derive little benefit. Further, those close to you really do notice--and sometimes resent--your 'absent presence'. Bosses, clients, spouses, and children are notoriously intolerant of anything less than your full, undivided attention. However, their resentment--whether or not they express it directly--likely pales next to that of your loved one.

When you're ill your world tends to shrink. Makes sense if you think about it: The personal relevance of many matters outside your immediate environment becomes increasingly remote. From a psychological viewpoint, this is good energy conservation--you don't waste precious time on things that aren't affecting you. It also captures one part of 'being in the moment' quite brilliantly. However, it can be problematic when dealing with those still focused on more distant matters.

When you've had a horrible day at work, gotten bad news about the kids, and sloshed through evil traffic in two inches of sleet to deliver your loved one's laundry (all the while listening to news about the tanking economy and government shutdowns), you should get a little credit for your caregiving efforts. You might even want a little sympathy. You're more likely to get criticized for 'not visiting enough' before getting an earful about everything that went wrong while you were away....

So what can you do to cope? Three things:

1. Role pruning

Those who have pondered deep philosophical matters all come around to the same conclusions: Life is precious, time is fleeting, and there aren't any do-overs. You can't ever get lost time back, so give some thought to what you're doing and why. Review each of your commitments, and take a hard look at what you give and get in each. You can't just ditch some roles when they're no longer fun. If this were possible, few teenagers would still have their parents' address or phone number. However, you can re-evaluate the roles you've taken on, and change those that aren't fulfilling. Some burdens are eased by reminding yourself that they're temporary. You can also delegate responsibilities. In spite of how it may sometimes feel, you are not the only person in the world able to do certain tasks. Share the burden--ask for help.

2. Set some limits

Figure out how much time you want to allocate to each role, and stick to those guidelines. True, some flexibility is in order here: Emergent situations do arise, and require appropriate action. However, if some parts of your life seem to generate constant chaos and absorb most of your energies, it might be time to put on the brakes. Leave losing battles, and give more of yourself to those things that re-energize you. This is based on sound psychological principles: Reinforce desirable behavior, and withdraw reinforcement from bad behavior. So if your loved one is truly being impossible, it's OK to visit briefly and call it a day--you'll stay longer when she's in a better mood. You can advise her of what you're doing and why if you want to, but it really isn't necessary. The beauty of reinforcement principles is that they impact behavior naturally, regardless of whether the person is aware of it.

3. Take care of yourself

We're bombarded by the same messages over and over for a reason: they're important, they're usually true, and most of the time they work. So here's a good message: You must reserve time for yourself if you're going to function optimally. Maintaining your own health is crucial; if you get sick, nobody wins. Exercise, time spent with friends, adequate sleep, proper diet, and a few little indulgences and self-rewards are essential if you want to keep going. Being a good caregiver means taking good care of yourself as well. You're not being selfish--it's just common sense.


Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, published by Newmarket Press. The second edition, revised and updated, was recently released.
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