The Joys and Challenges of Caregiving

by Brad Larsen, DDS

My personal journey as a caregiver began about two years after my wife, Cindy, and I were married. Our oldest son was six months old and I was beginning my second year of dental school when Cindy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Treatment options were limited and we were young and naïve, so we just carried on with our lives. At first, caregiving was just a small thing that I did to help my wife; however, caregiving has evolved over the years into a 24/7 endeavor.

A recent study found that men are 7 times more likely than women to abandon their spouse when they are diagnosed with a chronic condition such as cancer or multiple sclerosis. Perhaps one of the reasons men leave is that they see their lives and independence slipping away as the demands of caregiving increase.

I have identified five choices that I have made that have transformed caregiving from a task to a source of fulfillment in my own life.

1. Make the choice: A recent AARP study found that 50% of caregivers felt they had no choice in assuming the role of caregiver. Something we feel compelled to do, rather than chose to do, rarely produces a sense of fulfillment. For years, I just took care of Cindy. MS was calling the shots in our marriage and we were both victims. Things changed for us when I took a more proactive approach and I took back the control. I no longer feel like a victim.

2. Create a balanced life: There is little you can do to stop the impact of a chronic or progressive illness or a debilitating injury on your loved one. But there is a great deal that you can do to take responsibility for your personal health and meeting your own needs. As the physical demands of caring for Cindy increased, I realized that I needed to be on my “A Game.” Cindy’s and my own quality of life is directly related to my physical and emotional ability to care for her. By taking back control and maintaining my physical and emotional abilities, we have managed to live a relatively normal life.

3. Ask for help: Less than 50% of family caregivers report that they receive any unpaid help from family or friends. Caregivers are reluctant to ask for help. They look at asking for help as a sign of weakness. But waiting to ask for help increases the risk of exhaustion and health risks. Over the years I have learned to ask for help and have developed a circle of support.

4. Cut yourself some slack: Just like parenting, caregiving is a “learn as you go” process. We can only minimize risks, we can’t eliminate them. Being willing to make a mistake increases the opportunity to learn and find creative solutions to difficult problems associated with the failing health of your loved one.

5. Dare to dream: While caregivers logically conclude that their own personal dreams need to be forfeited or postponed, nothing could be further from the truth. Feeling that we have to forfeit or postpone our dreams will only increase the likelihood of resentment. Dreams are the benchmarks of life.

Dr. Atud Gawande, an American surgeon and writer, encourages us: “You may not control life’s circumstances, but getting to be the author of your life means getting to control what you do with them.” Cindy and I have made choices that have enabled us to create a remarkable life. And I am glad I stayed.

Brad Larsen, DDS, has worked as a dentist in Kelso, Washington for 28 years and is now actively retired.