Too Many Responsibilities: How Caregivers Can Create a New Identity
The Caring Generation® – Episode 170 June 28, 2023. Caregiving expert Pamela D Wilson discusses caregivers who have too many responsibilities. Learn what to do when losing a sense of identity or feeling super-vigilant or hyper-responsible for the care of aging loved ones.
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What happens when caregivers have too many responsibilities? Is it possible to become so lost in caring for others that you lose your sense of self?
How Not to Lose Yourself in Caregiving Responsibilities
Watch More Videos About Caregiving and Aging on Pamela’s YouTube Channel
This week on the program, we are talking about two ideas related to the duty and responsibility of being a caregiver.
- The first is the loss of identity that caregivers experience when too many responsibilities become all-encompassing as the result of caring for another person.
- The second idea also relates to having too many responsibilities. It’s the mindset of being super vigilant or hyper-responsible.
Do You Take Responsibility for Things Out of Your Control?
Some caregivers become less concerned about their own welfare—they ignore self-care. Instead, they worry about not taking care of a loved one or causing harm. They also tend to take responsibility for things that are not their fault.
For example, a loved one is diagnosed with a health condition. An aging parent who relies on you because they cannot do things they used to do. A caregiver might feel guilty that they could not prevent these issues from happening with a loved one.
It is easy to fall into situations where one feels responsible for everything that goes wrong. Some of this is related to early parent-child relationships and expectations.
It’s not only caregivers that experience identity loss such that they become totally immersed in other parts of life. Anyone can become lost in being a parent, immersed in a career, or focused on a hobby to the exclusion of other events and personal relationships.
Balancing Responsibility and Life
Now there are instances where people believe that something they do is their path in life or a passion. These are not the situations we are discussing here specific to being a caregiver.
However, I will use myself as an example of translating personal experiences into a professional vocation and learning to balance responsibility and duty.
I became involved in caregiving in 1999 partly due to life circumstances where I was a caregiver for aging parents. The other component was that my vocational testing results were strongly related to social and community work.
I did not leap into health care and caregiving lightly. I volunteered for over a year to learn and make sure I was passionate about caring for non-family members.
Then, I took the business experience I gained from managing consumer products and turned this into three businesses. This early work experience included being a product manager and marketing director managing consumer product brands like Oroweat, Thomas English Muffins, Entenmann’s, and Healthy Choice Soup.
The experience of creating business and product plans, managing a P&L, and working with various departments like accounting, manufacturing, production, procurement, sales, transportation, research and development, and human resources was invaluable.
This experience translated well into being a business owner in the care and health field. I talk to people today who ask me what it takes, and I am honest.
Starting a business from ground zero by yourself is the most challenging thing you will ever do. It takes every ounce of courage and effort you have. Most businesses fail in the first five years. But it can also be the most rewarding thing you do if you love the work.
Setting Caregiver Boundaries
Through this experience, I was legally and financially responsible for my client’s health and financial affairs. I used my personal experience with the death of my parents, siblings, and other family members.
I experienced first-hand the degree of caregivers’ hyper-sensitivity to the sound of a ringing telephone. I used to imagine my cell phone ringing during the night.
There were times when my phone rang at 3 am due to a client emergency. I experienced every emotion that family caregivers experience, good and bad, through my personal and professional work experience.
And even more importantly, I learned and trained my staff—in-home caregivers and care managers—how to respond to these emotional challenges so they could focus on doing their jobs caring for older adults and people with disabilities.
Setting boundaries and being professional meant not taking personal problems to a client’s home. Not sharing information that will create worry or a burden.
This also meant setting firm boundaries between paid caregiving responsibilities while they were with a client and their personal lives outside of work.
Maintaining Your Identity as a Caregiver
When I had my companies, many caregivers worried about the health and welfare of their clients during non-working hours. If you are a family caregiver, you know that these are complex boundaries to set.
It can take time and repetition to train the brain where one’s responsibilities end, and another person’s responsibilities begin. If you are a family caregiver who is still working, this is like leaving your personal life outside of work so that you can focus on your job during the day.
Separating personal and caregiving responsibilities can become challenging when aging parents call you at work or when you need to make calls to set doctor appointments or coordinate other care.
So, let’s relate this to the idea of losing an identity. Many caregivers tell me they do not remember the person they were before caregiving because all their activities and habits have changed so significantly.
It is as if one door shut closed and another door opened. Or some type of unexpected event—like a loved one having a heart attack or breaking a hip—changed life in an instant—forever. The old life is gone, and it is time to change everything to care for a loved one.
Navigating Major Life Changes
Individuals who find it easier to manage a significant life and identity change tend to be persons who find a way to explain or manage the event.
The ability to move forward does not always mean that individuals are happy about the change. Those who transition with less stress or effort find a way to rationalize the events of what is and must happen.
So, for example, a spouse who gives up their full-time job to care for a spouse who had a stroke and now needs total care. The story may be, caring for my spouse is my responsibility and a priority. It makes sense to give up my career to be with my husband or wife full-time so that they can recover more quickly from this health event. That is a story that almost everyone can agree with.
On the other hand, there may be spouses who say, I choose to keep my job and place my husband or wife in a care community where he or she can get the care I cannot provide. Instead, I remain the sole financial support for my spouse and myself. It’s unlikely that my spouse will be able to return to work. Live has to go on. That is also a story that almost everyone can agree with.
So, for an event that turns life topsy-turvy, coming up with a story that supports the situation’s needs is helpful. Many times, supporting the needs of another person or the needs of a family is enough of a story to manage the emotions resulting from unexpected transitions. So this is the transition into caregiving.
Transitioning Out of Caregiving: A Caregiver’s Poem
The transition out of caregiving can be more challenging. You may be dealing with the death of a spouse or loved one. Challenges also occur when the role of caregiving becomes all-encompassing. One day you wake up, and all the daily caregiving routines and responsibilities are gone.
I want to share a poem that a caregiver placed on a video on my YouTube Channel about grief and loss and caring for a mother with dementia. Here it is.
“Had to find a place to vent. Momma just passed, and I am so lost. I miss you, momma. Right now, we would be sharing time when there were no words. I spent the past six years with you every day. We were a great team.
You were adorable. I enjoyed really getting to know you. And it broke my heart watching you leave. I watch the shows you watched. And I can still hear you yelling at the TV. I remember you dumping iced tea on Brenda in the closet. You loved to hate her. Laughing and clapping your little hands to Golden Girls. It was a hard journey for you. Moments of clarity were the worst at times.
My goal was to make sure your end was happier than your beginning. And it was. You smiled a lot. Had loads of fun. I spoiled you rotten. You had to go. Friends were waiting on you. And I am here trying to pull it together. And to top it off, remember Janice, momma? My 17-year-old Basset. She got run over the other day, momma. It was horrible. So, I miss you both. Maybe she is with you – I hope. I love you.”
It can be tough to start from ground zero when caregivers give up their prior lives and identities. The identity you give up may relate to work or a career, being a friend, having a social life, participating in self-care activities like exercise, or placing marriage or other relationships on the back burner.
If you are a caregiver with too many responsibilities, you may have given up everything and everyone in your life to the exclusion of the person you care for. Now you might wonder if this happens.
I can tell you that caregivers lose their identities to differing degrees depending on the care level and time needs of the person who needs care. If you live with the person you care for, maintaining your identity can be even more challenging because your time isn’t your own, and you have no personal time or space.
Successful caregivers on 24/7 duty – 24 hours a day and seven days a week—make time for themselves by having others come to care for their loved ones several days each week. Now this may not be possible for everyone depending on where you live, the costs of hiring a caregiver, access to public programs like Medicaid or long-term support services that provide a caregiver, or access to other programs.
Creating a New You
If you have already given up many of your connections, you may have nothing to do in time away from caregiving responsibilities. Having no personal contacts means you must venture out to meet new people and establish new relationships and patterns.
Identity change can take time. It does not happen overnight. So, if you are a caregiver who has given up your identity and wants to get your old self back or create a new one, start now because the process can take months or years.
Better yet, if you are early in the caregiving stages, do not give up your identity, career, friends, social activities, spouse, or children. Fight with your brain not to allow too many responsibilities related to caring for others to take over your life.
Know that others will tell you that caring for others is a blessing and a life purpose. It can be. But it is not a positive experience for everyone.
Mostly, people who reinforce duty and responsibility look in from the outside and judge caregivers who may be their siblings. As you know, it is usually the same siblings who are too busy to help and push most of the responsibilities on you because you jumped in feet first into the identity of being a caregiver.
Focusing on Self-Care
Continuing for a moment on the idea of identity loss, there are instances where it’s much easier to focus on the problems and life of another person to take the focus off the caregiver’s problems. Some caregivers bury themselves in the care of another person so they can ignore situations they created in their own lives.
This total focus on other people can harm the caregiver and the person needing care because it can be a sign of a codependent relationship. The caregiver may only be happy when making extreme sacrifices – losing an identity, giving up a job, moving into a parent’s home to become a caregiver, and so on.
Feeling needed by the person who needs care is more important than anything else. However, the challenge is that the caregiver gives up their self-esteem and all possibility of living independently unless they recognize the habit and seek counseling to regain their identity and life.
Feeling Out of Control
Let’s look at the second idea about having too much responsibility. There is a link between wanting to control everything in life and feeling that everything is out of control. When this happens, a person may create habits to check and double-check aspects of safety or act to reduce the possibility of something bad happening.
The desire to control or to feel responsible for others can also be a preoccupation or obsessive-compulsive behavior. Dealing with too many responsibilities has become the full-time occupation of caregivers.
Those for whom feeling too responsible is a preoccupation may constantly worry about what others feel or think. They may be preoccupied with the actions of others—what they are doing or not doing.
For example, an aging parent whose doctor recommended exercises—is not exercising. Or a diet recommendation to avoid certain foods high in fat or cholesterol. Caregivers can nag and become obsessive about the behaviors of others that they cannot control.
The bigger challenge is that the caregiver somehow feels responsible for the fact that mom and dad continue not to exercise or not eat a better diet. In a sense, the caregiver has lost the concept of personal responsibility, which is the thought that I control my actions and that others control their actions.
Everyone then experiences the results or outcomes of these actions. If a parent has heart disease and is overweight, there is likely a cause-and-effect relationship along the way. A parent might have suffered a physical injury that complicated their health.
Or they may have never been physically active and always relied on fast food or junk food for meals. While there is a general lack of education about actions that lead to health risks in our society, personal responsibility for our actions cannot be ignored as contributors to daily life.
So, for caregivers with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, having too many responsibilities can become a daily nightmare. There is always too much to do. Others are never satisfied; they only criticize and complain. You fear that something terrible will happen, if not today, then tomorrow.
If you are a caregiver in any of these situations, what can you do to create a new identity and throw too many responsibilities out the window and into the past? Let’s start with steps to develop or regain an identity.
Let’s assume that you remained employed during your caregiving years. If this is the case, you will have a slightly easier transition away from being a caregiver because you maintained a self-care routine.
While you may not view continued employment as self-care, it is because you maintained the ability to be financially self-sufficient. Caregivers who give up employment do not realize how hard it is to regain employment.
I corresponded with a caregiver recently who has been out of the workforce for several years. If you have searched for a job during or since COVID, you know that online applications are the primary way to find a job today.
Resumes must make it past BOTS (computer programs that look for experience and skills identified by keywords) before they reach the desk of a real person. Interviews today are more often online than in person.
And work, it can be remote instead of going to an office location—which can be a plus for people who enjoy working independently and do not want to relocate. The world of work and the skills required to stay current are constantly changing.
So assuming one has a job and is re-creating an identity, steps to move forward include identifying meaningful activities outside of work. I’ll share some examples for myself.
- Volunteering is a great way to meet people and contribute positively to the lives of others. Some of the top websites for volunteering include volunteermatch.org, UnitedWay.org, Americorps.gov, RedCross.org, Volunteer.gov, Dosomething.org, and voa.org.
- Plus, you can contact any company or organization you are interested in and ask if they have volunteer programs. You want to volunteer for an organization that supports an interest or passion.
- There is also a huge need for individuals to serve on the board of directors of non-profit organizations. If you have time and energy, it may be easier than you think to find a project you enjoy that combines the ability to meet new people and make new friends.
If volunteering or being a board of director member is not a fit for you, then identify hobbies – crafting, gardening, a sports activity, or something else— that you’d like to do or an activity you did before having too many responsibilities.
Spending time with family, friends, or social groups may be on that list. These activities will help you re-establish an identity separate from work.
Transitioning From Loss
In any transition to or from caregiving, there can be emotional hurdles that one must face. If you are a caregiver who experienced the loss of a spouse or aging parent, you may have months of transition.
If you are the estate executor or trustee, you may have to clean out and sell a house or other belongings. This can take a year or more if other family members are involved.
So, while you may not be providing hands-on care, you may still feel you have too many responsibilities to move forward with your life. You may also be dealing with grief or loss and going to counseling sessions.
You may feel isolated or alone. There are so many emotions to manage when change is voluntary or happens due to circumstances beyond control. The most complicated aspect can be managing a mindset and the tendency of the brain to focus on worry or negative consequences.
Finding Peace in Uncertain Times
There can be a tipping point of finding peace in uncertain times. This can happen by recognizing discomfort with uncertainty and learning to accept that you have no control over what happens tomorrow or outside circumstances.
While we think we may control our lives, something as simple as a fall or a change in health—that likely led us to become a caregiver—can happen to anyone at any time.
So the “go-to remedy” for too many responsibilities and uncertainty is to focus only on what you can control. Which mainly is your mindset and the way you think about situations.
You can also control your responses to daily events and circumstances. Recognize that there can also be a tendency to gravitate to people in similar situations when uncertain.
This can be a favorable situation where a caregiver finds a support group and seeks the experiences of others in similar situations, or you join a private coaching group where the experience is positive.
However, gravitating to similar others can be harmful if one ends up in a group of radical thinkers or extreme thoughts because one feels vulnerable or uncertain. So it’s important not to make radical changes immediately when moving through any transition.
Using Skills Gained From Caregiving Experiences to Create a New Identity
Take your time. Be practical and systematic. Research and investigate your options. Create a plan of action.
These skills you likely gained during your caregiving years, or at least I hope you did. With all the challenges posed by caring for another person, many skills are gained, and much can be learned.
Begin paying attention to the effects of too many responsibilities that, include:
- Irregular sleep patterns
- Mood swings
- Feelings of depression or overwhelm
- Not eating or eating too much
- Being sedentary
- Neglecting relationships
- Worry about your job performance
- Having difficulty establishing boundaries
- Losing confidence and self-esteem
- Turning to substances
You can flip the switch to make different choices and create that new identity. Begin saying no to activities that feel burdensome.
Say yes to activities that inspire you and make you happy. Create happy spaces and happy moments every day.
Recognize mood swings and adverse reactions to others. Give yourself time to identify why you feel the way you do so that you can work through these emotions.
You can reflect on how far you’ve come as you regain solid footing. It’s probably been a long way.
Give yourself credit for working through challenging times and coming out on the other side to create a new you you can be proud of. These intentional changes are actions that no one can initiate for you once you identify what you want your daily life and experiences to be like.
Dream a little dream. Dream a big dream. Take the next steps to create the life you want.
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