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What Happens To Family Caregivers When A Parent Dies?

Judie Rappaport
February 21, 2012

Dear Eldercare 911,

I changed so much in the years I spent caring for my father. It’s not just that I’m older. That doesn’t thrill me, but I can handle it. My problem is I no longer  know who I am—or even who I was. I was devastated and had no enthusiasm for anything for almost a year after Pop died. I’ve never experienced pain like that. I finally got grief counseling and it helped me work through my feelings. I had no idea death could be so complicated. 

Last week I timidly called an old friend and had lunch with her. It had been years since we spent time together and we were both looking forward to our reunion. It was awful. I know nothing of her ‘normal’ world of shopping, restaurants, and lunches with friends. I haven’t been to the movies in years (I don’t know one show from the other) and my vacation isn’t ‘all set.’ All I know is diapers, doctors, medicines, wheelchairs, and hospitals. When I returned home I realized that my house still ‘smells’ like sickness. 

My father was ill for years and lay near death for five months. I wasn’t prepared for him to die and it looks like I haven’t finished preparing myself to live. I don’t regret one minute of the years I invested in caring for my father, but now I’d like to invest the same amount of love and energy in ‘me.’  Where do I start?

- Lynne, California

Dear Lynne:

You can start in the middle or at the beginning—it’s your choice.   Our suggestion is to start slowly, one step at a time. What’s most important is your knowing that the rest of your life depends on you starting somewhere!

If you could ‘wish upon a star,’ what would you ask for? Think carefully: if you could wake up tomorrow and experience one change in yourself or your surroundings, what would it be?

Perhaps a good place for a new beginning is to replace the ‘smell’ of sickness in your home with a new, welcoming feeling. We’re sure that once you begin, you’ll create your own list. In the meantime, here are some basic suggestions to get you started:

  • If you can afford it, call a professional cleaning service and ask them to estimate the cost of a thorough top to bottom cleaning. That includes the shelves, baseboards, louvered doors, cupboards, windows, stove, refrigerator—everything!
  • Buy a few beautiful scented candles in your favorite aromas and colors and put at least one in each room, including the bathroom. Keep one or more lit in the room you’re working in when you’re cooking, dressing, putting on makeup, reading or watching TV. (For safety, remember to extinguish candles when you leave the room.)
  • Unless money is no object, create a monthly budget. In addition to retail stores, shop flea markets, consignment stores, and outlets to stay within your budget.
  • Begin with the room you spend the most time in. Paint it a different color; buy a new piece of furniture. Think about a chair, table, area rug, armoire, or anything else you’d like. If you feel up to it, redecorate the entire room.
  • Buy yourself at least two new outfits: one for quiet times at home and one for going out with friends.
  • Buy yourself a new set of sheets and towels in your favorite colors. 
  • Make an appointment to have your hair professionally cut and styled. After your haircut, visit a cosmetics store for color and makeup tips to go with your new ‘do.’
  • Join a group: volunteer to raise money for a worthy cause; join a dinner society, a political group, a horticultural society, a book group, a music society, or a ‘learn to ski’ group—anything that interests you. Learn to socialize with those who like the same things you do. 

Start slowly and if one idea doesn’t work out, keep going. Try another one and use each success to gain confidence for your next move. Remember your goal: devote the same amount of love and energy that you gave to your father to yourself. Start with this Living Forward guide:


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