FRIENDSHIPS...WHEN TO HOLD 'EM OR FOLD 'EM
The demands of caregiving can often push friends away...or bring them closer together.
Friendship is something you’ve experienced since childhood. But the friendship demands of family caregivers have unique characteristics. Understanding how the caregiver role puts stress and strain on old or new friends—and what to do about those demands—will help salvage those friendships. This understanding will allow you to form healthy, positive, new relationships as well.
Everyone needs friends—but when you’re under pressure and stressed, you need friends more than ever. According to a guide published by the MetLife Mature Market Institute, Since You Care: Family Caregiving, 35 percent of those caring for a loved one reported emotional stress and strain.
Unfortunately, it is this “need” for friendship that some caregivers feel that may push friends away. If your need for a friend seems excessive, and if the sharing is one-sided—you’re doing all the talking and taking but not too much of the listening and empathizing—some may start making excuses to avoid spending time with you. They may not even be aware that it’s your caregiving role that they’re trying to escape, not you or your friendship.
However, sometimes caregivers go overboard in the other direction: Fearing that they will push their friends away if they share what they’re going through, they don’t even give their friends a chance to provide them with the emotional support that they need.
Pat Nelson, a clinical social worker who facilitates a caregiver’s support group at Center for HOPE in Darien, Connecticut, has observed, “The people I talk to worry about overwhelming their friends or dumping too much on them when the caregiving goes on for a while. They are reluctant to turn to their friends.”
Still, Nelson often suggests that they give it a try. For those who need help approaching a friend, she suggests saying, for example, “Do you mind if I just tell you about my week with my Mom?” With coaching, Nelson has found that “the biggest change is that the caregiver becomes more comfortable calling on friends.”
Three Kinds of Friends: Why You Need Them All
in my research, I’ve discovered that there are three categories of friends—casual, close and best.
Casual friends are those with whom you tend to share information, a hobby or activity. While you may not want to reveal your deepest feelings or emotions to casual friends, there is still a genuine shared connection.
By contrast, however, a close friend is someone with whom you feel a trust and intimacy that foster the sharing of confidences. Close friends offer each other emotional support and often there is a long history between you. A best friend has all the same traits as a close friend—but while you can have many close friends, there is usually only one person you consider a best friend.
Caregivers need to know that all three kinds of friends are important—and that sometimes you’ll be surprised by the support you get from casual relationships.
For caregivers who have so many demands, just squeezing out time to keep up with a close or best friend may seem to be enough. But it could just be the casual friends—those who are more plentiful and part of a wider network—who may give you helpful resources and provide creative caregiving tips. Another advantage: casual friends don’t have to pass the same stringent tests of time and intimacy, so it is more likely that new casual friends can enter your life during this short-term or extended caregiving time.
New casual friends may be those whom you meet in doctor’s offices or the hospital. That’s what happened to Evangelina Vela, a writer in Houston, Texas, who cared for her husband, Brian, for 10 years after his stroke and kidney failure. Because they’d moved to their new neighborhood just before his illness, it was challenging to make new friends. Still, she found a way. “Most of the friends we made were the medical staff because we were there all the time,” she says. “One of our paid caregivers became a friend too. She truly loved Brian—they had a good time together. She was, and I think still is, a friend.” Even after her husband’s death, the friendship has continued.
Maintain Friends Outside Your Caregiving Circle
You need to treat yourself to fun with friends who have nothing to do with your caregiver responsibilities, too. Sometimes, you get so immersed in your caregiver role that you forget that you lived a very different kind of busy life. Reconnecting by phone, email or in person with old friends who “knew you when” can remind you that being a caregiver is just a part of your life and who you are now. It is not your complete identity.
When It’s Hard to Stand By You
“My dearest and closest friends, my best friends, stuck with me and helped me through, and our other friends abandoned us completely,” says theatrical producer Carol Ostrow who was a caregiver for her husband during the 18 years he had debilitating illnesses. Ostrow continues: “Friends at the country club abandoned us—like we had a disease together. They couldn’t bear looking at what he was going through.”
But loyal friends will be there for you, says Ostrow, “Your really good friends you can count on. And it’s a wonderful thing to know—and so comforting to know—that if I needed to talk and wanted company, that they were right there, neither judging or evaluating, but were right there.”
Let Positive Friends Help You
It is important to let your friends know what your needs are and to let your friends help you. “Most people want to help,” says Evangelina Vela. “After all, you wouldn’t be a caregiver if you didn’t want to help. Let someone else take care of you once in a while.” Vela shared how “early on, a friend, a massage therapist, came over the house” and gave them each a workout.
Roberta Cole, a New York City-based writer and co-author, with Riki Intner, of Caregiving from the Heart: Tales of Inspiration, found close friends who helped her during the 10 years she cared for her mother. Says Cole, “I remember at one point, my mother broke her hip and my friend was a great help to me, coming to the rehab center and being there when my husband couldn’t be.”
But during those 10 years, Cole says that she was selective about with whom she shared her caregiving experiences and feelings. “I didn’t talk to my close friends about it all the time,” she explains, “because I wanted a little break sometimes. And also, it’s hard for people who aren’t in the thick of it themselves to really understand.”
Still, she discovered even more ongoing support over those years from co-author and friend, Intner, a family therapist in San Francisco whom she’s known since infancy (their mothers were friends).
Even though Intner had moved to California in her twenties, years later, over the phone, they learned that they both were in caregiver roles. That eventually led to their collaboration on their 2006 book about caregiving.
When Support Makes Magic Happen
You might find that you will need new friends of a different sort, too—ones who are going through the same caregiving challenge. And, says social worker Marcy Rosen Bernstein, “The best way to meet someone who will understand is through support groups.” Bernstein ran a telephone support group for four women who were caring for husbands, fathers, siblings and mothers, but who rarely could leave their homes to attend meetings. Notes Bernstein: “After the initial one-hour session, the women were supporting and counseling each other, and I spent most of the time listening. Magic happened over the phone wires.”
Take Time to Say “Thanks”
Being a caregiver places so many time constraints on everyone. Even though you are likely stressed by these additional pressures, you should try to find time to thank your neighbors and friends—in big or small ways—who are there for you.
Because you’re doing so much for the loved one in your care, it’s often easy to take for granted what others are doing for you—but every gesture that a friend offers should be acknowledged, whether it’s a casual friend’s offer to bring over dinner one night so you don’t have to cook, or a close friend taking the time to listen to you recount a particularly bothersome experience. You certainly don’t have to lavish them with expensive gifts—just a simple “thank you for being there for me” will go a very long way.
And always take the time to appreciate yourself. “I learned that I’m not alone,” remembers former caregiver Carol Ostrow. But Ostrow says that she experienced an even bigger life lesson: “I learned that I have to depend on myself—that I am my best friend.”
Jan Yager, PhD, is a sociologist (www.drjanyager.com), friendship coach and author of four books on friendships, including When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You (Simon & Schuster, Inc., Fireside Books). To read a chapter for free, go to www.whenfriendshiphurts.com