Friendship and Caregiving: Smart Strategies for Staying Connected

At some point in our lives it is likely that we will be a caregiver to someone we love: our
child, our spouse, our parent(s), or a relative. It can happen suddenly, we find ourselves needing to give care to a family member who has become acutely physically and/or mentally ill, or we might slowly become a caregiver to a relative who has a chronic illness with its ongoing ebb and flow.

Being a caregiver is the kind of role and responsibility that can be both purposeful and all-
consuming. Caring for another human being, especially someone who is ill, is deeply emotional and physical work that the toll it can take has its own term: caregiver burnout. It takes energy to care for a person who is unwell. Someone recently said to me that, “it can feel like our energy is being taken by them because s/he needs it for themselves.”

We often want to turn to our family for help and support but there are many reasons which can make this challenging: family members may feel stretched to their limits, our relatives might live far away from us, there can be an emotional distance or estrangement, and unfortunately our family members, like many people, can feel uncomfortable with frailty and illness.

Caregiving can be an opportunity to deepen our friendships, especially when finding the time to get together with those very friends can be difficult. It is at these times that we, as friends, can step in and show up. We can give care to our care-giving friend, which can go a long way to help him/her keep their energy positive and stay well. It is a time when we can show that “I am with you in this.”

There are all kinds of ways to be supportive and stay connected with friends in a way that is comfortable for us and helpful to them. Offering our time and our ears to listen are gifts in themselves. Here are some other possibilities that I have found helpful in my life:

We can acknowledge that we need help. Sharing what we are going through can be helpful in letting our friend know that we are feeling stressed. Thinking about and asking for the kinds of support that will help us is a radical act of vulnerability and intimacy, the kind that brings friendships closer.

We can offer practical help and support in terms of running errands and doable actions. 
It might be offering to pick up or deliver the dry cleaning, return library books or videos that are due, mow the lawn or shovel the sidewalk, pick up the mail or water the houseplants, feed the cat or dog, or go grocery shopping for them.

We can feed our friends and their family by preparing or dropping off easy-to-reheat meals, offering a home-made treat made with them in mind.

We can pay a visit to our friend and their loved one. It does not need to be long, even a brief visit will give a burst of joy and caring to a friend.

We can invite our friend and their family member to a movie, to an amusement or
show, for a meal, over for the holidays. Extending an invite to include a friend’s family member is a generous, caring gesture that will be cherished and remembered, even if it does not happen.

We can accompany our friend when they visit their relative in a health or residential care setting. Care settings can be stressful environments and sometimes just being there  with our friend during a visit is support enough. Or we can connect with our friend for a conversation afterward to find out how the visit(s) went.

We can connect via Skype or speakerphone with our friend and their relative. Technology can be really helpful to stay connected. Saying hello to your friend’s relative can make a huge difference and put a smile on everyone’s face.

We can offer to connect with or check in on their family member when they are away
(so that they can go away with added peace of mind).

We can share something that we think will make them laugh: a joke, a cartoon, a
video.

These are just some ideas and suggestions. Each situation is unique, sometimes we might have to think outside the box and be creative. Even discussing this with a friend, asking them to choose out of a few options that are doable for you, will be a wonderful opportunity to acknowledge this time of need for support and connection.It can bring friends closer together, to bond in a special new way, perhaps to become family.

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

~ Brene Brown

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Changing Health, Changing Friendships

One of the big challenges in friendships happens when we go through a transition, and a particularly difficult one is when one of us becomes ill or faces a major health change.

There are many different kinds of health related situations and challenges that can affect our friendships:
– feeling fatigue, physical or emotional pain.
– being diagnosed with a chronic physical or mental illness or a life long health issue.
– becoming disabled or experiencing changes to our mobility that require adapted equipment.
– having a cognitive or neurological impairment that we know will gradually, eventually, worsen.
– living with a disease that makes us increasingly frail and dependent on others.

We have personal beliefs, attitudes and values about being healthy, health, illness and frailty though we may not be aware of them. That is, until a health event or crisis heightens our awareness and offers new insights into our beliefs and feelings.

One famous friendship that deepened because of a health issue is beautifully depicted in Bird + Magic: A Courtship Of Rivals. The relationship between basketball champions Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed drastically in 1991 when Magic revealed that he had received a diagnosis of HIV. This was when it was still a terminal diagnosis that carried great stigma. To his surprise and joy it was his greatest rival on court, Larry Bird, who barely spoke a word to him, that supported him most and had his back when life dealt him this unexpected diagnosis. Simultaneously, it was with great disappointment that he realized some of his closest friends, those he expected to show up, didn’t. It happens to everyone — you just never know. You don’t know who will be able to handle it and who will not.

Health events and crises are times in our life where we notice who shows up and who doesn’t, which friends can be there with us and which ones cannot. It might be a temporary thing, it might be longer, maybe permanent.

Would you keep the door open to the possibility of continuing the friendship?

I have personally dealt with the unfortunate ending of a friendship that was in part due to a chronic health issue. When I was in my 20s I felt increasingly unwell with agonizing stomach cramps and fatigue that forced me into a horizontal position. I might have looked well but I felt like crap.

When I felt okay and had energy I made plans with the best intentions to be there. The truth was that I did not know whether I’d be well enough to get there or not. I was constantly in a kind of limbo not knowing how I would feel later. A dear friend could not understand why I regularly cancelled our plans and she felt disrespected by my cancellations. I remember feeling her “shoulds” pile up on my shoulders: how I should be(have), what I should do, how I should show up. The expectations and guilt were too heavy and burdensome for me on top of my feeling unwell.

A few years later I was diagnosed with a chronic digestive condition and have worked hard to peel away layers of toxicity from my body and life. I was very sad to lose her and to lose our friendship, while at the same time, I was meeting people and making new friendships that were born from a different place than before.

We don’t know how our friends will be when we experience a health crisis or diagnosis. It is an entrance into The Unknown and it is unpredictable. Moreover, our friends don’t know how they will be. We don’t know how we’ll be with our friends’ health crisis or diagnosis either.

If a health crisis happens to your friend, if s/he is diagnosed with Alzheimers or a mood disorder, an accident occurs that requires a wheelchair, will you be there?
Will you show up?

Acknowledging and leaving space open for whatever shows up: fear, discomfort, awkwardness, silence, sadness (and whatever else) can be a growing moment in friendship. A health situation in our life can be a growing moment towards a deeper friendship.

Questions to ponder:
* What do you expect from your friends if a health crisis or event happens to you? What do your friends expect from you if they have a health crisis?
* What are your beliefs about friendship (friends) and illness?
* How can you stay open to whatever unfolds in your friendship during a health event or crisis?

“When you face a crisis, you know who your true friends are.”     ~ Magic Johnson