Each elderly person has unique personal care needs that create their own challenges. But on a more dynamic, interpersonal level, the greatest challenge for family caregivers is often maintaining a sense of their family relationships and familial order in the face of a dehabilitating decline in personal health. Whether an individual is just beginning to care for a family member or has been doing so for years, it’s important to understand the varying roles they will play in their loved one’s life. It’s counterintuitive to think of caregiving as something separate from the rest of their family relationship, but it’s often an important strategy to manage the distress that comes from caring for an elderly loved one.
Most people already have an intuitive sense of how compartmentalization occurs, how roles are reversed. Hardly any child who faces the prospect of becoming a family caregiver doesn’t recognize that as their parent’s health and mobility begins to fail, they begin to care for the parent in much the same way they were once cared for. And, yet, no matter what personal care is needed, no matter how much the parent comes to depend on the child, the child still and always will depend on the parent.
Understanding the caregiver role
In the professional caregiving industry, this skill is almost always conceived of as boundaries. Caregivers are taught to assert professional boundaries: A paid caregiver is not a friend, though the caregiver should be friendly. A paid caregiver should always be willing and able to provide care, but should never force unwanted care upon someone. As a family caregiver, these boundaries are much more malleable. Indeed, a family caregiver exists on both sides of this boundary, but the boundary itself is still useful. By recognizing this boundary, compartmentalization of the relationship is achieved. Old self-identities can be preserved and protected, while new roles can be forged that help both the caregiver and the cared for cope with various challenges.
How compartmentalization works
Compartmentalization does not lead to a cold, distant persona. It should not become an anesthetic for your love. Rather, it shows us that tenderness is possible on both sides of the boundary. Again, it is the process of creating new identities, not destroying old ones: “I don’t want you to remember me this way.” This is a common plea from many elderly family members. By compartmentalizing their roles, the family caregiver does not deny these new memories. Indeed, in most cases, that would be impossible. Rather, the family caregiver might say, “Just because I will remember you this way doesn’t mean I will forget who you were and who you are still. And nothing will change or dull the memories I have of all that you have given me.”