The Next Frontier: Care-Getting

Asking for help when caregiving wears you down.

by Suzanne Braun Levine • Guest Writer { View Profile }
Photograph: Photo by iStock.

With your kids finally leaving home, your vision of the years ahead beginning to come into focus, and your relationships narrowing down to a precious few, you are just beginning to explore what it means to care for yourself  –– when the call to care-giving comes. Parents who had been taking care of each other suddenly lose it; partners who had been mighty oaks crack; friends who had been there for you suddenly need your support; kids in crisis show up on the doorstep.

Ours is called “the sandwich generation” because we often find ourselves squeezed by responsibilities for children and long-lived parents at the same time. The AARP reports that seventy percent of its members still provide financial support for their grown kids and forty percent are helping support both kids and parents. The same AARP report offers the prospect of another dependent – ourselves. “The number of 75-plus households headed by single women is projected to grow from fewer than 6 million in 2010 to 13 million by 2050.” The sandwich is turning into a triple-decker. How do we balance our care-giving commitments with the need to develop care-GETTING skills?

“You can’t give up your life,” well-meaning advisors remind you as you embark on a care-taking journey with someone you love. But you will have to give up some of what was your life before the fateful phone call or event; the challenge of “care-getting” is to hold on to enough of the rest. “Get out of the house, spend some time with yourself, rediscover who you are and what you like to do when you are neither cheer-leading nor nursing,” one long-time care-giver told me.

Another good piece of advice I heard was to mobilize your own circle of caring volunteers. Many times friends and family want to lend a hand but don’t know how. It is helpful to be specific in your requests – “Can you bring a supply of soup this weekend?’ “Can you help me with my taxes?” “Can you research the visiting nurse options?” – and to give some thought to who among your volunteers is the person most suitable to carry out the request.

I could have used this advice as I was tending to my declining mother over the past year. And I have some tips for well-meaning friends. When people asked what they could do, the question seemed so vague that I hardly gave it any thought. What would have really helped is for the offer to have been more specific and for the friend to have taken some initiative. I would have been so grateful if those who had met my mother had paid her a visit – it would have given me a break and cheered her up immensely. Or if someone had arranged a regular fruit or flower delivery. Or if someone had offered to research the options for dealing with any of the practical needs that keep coming up. It is hard for us to accept help and hard for others to know what to offer, but we in the Sandwich Generation need to keep working on it.

A very innovative set up - The Caring Collaborative – artfully combines care-giving and care-getting. The idea was conceived by Charlotte Frank, a co-founder of The Transition Network, who found herself in need of care following surgery. The CC is a collective opened to TTN members (I am on the Advisory Board); those who sign up join a time bank in which they accumulate care-getting time they can draw on by helping other members in need – taking them to doctor’s appointments, doing grocery shopping, preparing meals, filling out paperwork.   

Care-getting is a way of practicing Life Lesson number Six in my book Fifty Is the New Fifty:  Do Unto Yourself As You Have Been Doing Unto Others. It doesn’t mean that you have to neglect those you have cared for so tenderly all these years, but that you begin to care for yourself with the same devotion.

First Published March 14, 2011

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