IT FEELS NATURAL to step in when I can make life easier for my partner, Jackie, who has multiple myeloma. But one thing I’ve learned in the six years Jackie and I have been together is that taking on too much responsibility can backfire, ultimately causing us both more harm than good.
At times, Jackie has been so sick or sidelined with pain that she has needed my help with everything, from making her morning oatmeal to tying her sneakers. In those times, by necessity, I do what I can. But more often, she can take care of her own needs and responsibilities. That’s when I need to step back. My habit of intervening, what I call overcaring, can weaken Jackie’s sense of independence. It can also sap my own energy, which can lead to irritability, stress, resentment and caregiver burnout.
Using the advice of our oncology social worker, I made a conscious choice a few months back to pump the brakes a bit on my caregiving. At first, I worried it might be too much for Jackie. I felt guilty burdening her with mundane chores like grocery shopping. But over time, creating more balance not only made me a better caregiver, but strengthened our relationship.
Here are some tips that may help if you find yourself in a similar situation.
Resist the urge to do everything. Talk to the person you are caring for to get a clear picture of his or her needs. Which ones can you meet? Which ones can he or she take care of? If you’ve already fallen into the pattern of doing everything, start to shift some tasks back to your loved one, including household chores. Does Jackie like to do dishes? No. Can she do dishes? Yes. The line between what your loved one is able to do and likes to do can be blurry. Encourage your loved one to step up as much as possible without overdoing it.
Make your loved one’s independence a priority. Most people want to be in control of their lives and feel good about taking care of themselves. We must strive to keep our loved ones as independent as possible for as long as possible, which means trusting them when they say they can complete a task.
Know your limits. Be realistic about how much you can give as a caregiver. It’s likely that you have work and family commitments. And taking care of yourself is an absolute must. Set clear limits on your caregiving role and try to stick with them, even if it means enlisting the help of friends or other family members.
Let your loved one care for you too. It’s important for caregivers to accept help, including from the people we are caring for. Allow your loved one the opportunity to provide simple gestures, such as giving a back rub or sharing words of encouragement, which can help bring some normalcy to stressful times, as well as focus you both on what’s most important—your commitment to each other.
Cancer Today magazine is free to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers who live in the U.S. Subscribe here to receive four issues per year.