When my husband was suddenly hospitalized and I became his primary caregiver, my life immediately changed.
I was recently plunged into the role of primary caregiver for my husband, who was hospitalized with kidney failure. While in the hospital, my husband was diagnosed with granulomatosis with polyangiitis, which is a rare disease characterized by inflammation in various tissues (including blood vessels, vasculitis). (Dr. Fauci actually developed the treatment plan for the disease, which has drastically altered the prognosis for it. With his research, this disease went from being nearly 100 percent fatal to mostly treatable!)
My husband and I had heard of this health condition. Both of our lives have changed drastically as we have scrambled to learn as much as we could about this disease and its prognosis. With treatment, the prognosis is fairly good, but diligent monitoring is required to prevent small- or large-scale relapse. I hadn’t thought about the role of caregiving since the 1990s, when my grandparents, who had terminal illnesses, required caregiving from our family. I believe that many of us don’t think about caregiving until we suddenly find ourselves in the situation.
Caregiving Can Be Challenging for Introverts
Caregiving can be challenging for an introvert like me on many levels. My day-to-day life is fairly routine and planned out, which I find calming. By choice, I wouldn’t make drastic changes to my routine overnight. However, you have no choice when you find yourself in an emergency. To say the least, the situation with my husband was overwhelming as I struggled to make sense of what was happening — and later, to help my husband make healthcare decisions. My life changed immediately — in more ways than one.
At the same time, family and friends were contacting me nonstop for updates. While I appreciated all the support, so much contact can quickly lead to overload and drain us introverts. There were times when I managed this well. Other times, not-so-well. Yet, overall, I learned a lot from the experience.
Am I a caregiving expert? No, but I do feel that I can lend some valuable insight for introverts who may suddenly find themselves in a caregiving role for a family member or friend.
5 Tips for the Introverted Caregiver
1. Stay calm — find a place to unwind and take a deep breath (and then another one).
Before take-off on a plane, the flight attendant reads a list of safety precautions. One of the precautions is, in the event of an emergency, parents should secure their oxygen masks first before helping their children. This is applicable in many areas of life. Often, we cannot properly help others unless our “oxygen mask” is secured first.
While it’s difficult to find a place in the hospital to catch your breath, it’s important to do so for your mental health. As a caregiver, you need to find a sanctuary for yourself to unwind and just breathe.
Luckily, the hospital where we were staying had several private lounges for family members, as well as an outdoor walking trail. In addition, most hospitals have a chapel for family members to pray, meditate, or enjoy a quiet moment.
It is important to take time out for yourself so that you can be fully present and supportive for your loved ones. Otherwise, you may lose steam quickly because hospital settings can be overstimulating for anyone, but especially for introverts.
For much of my husband’s two-week hospital stay, I was physically and mentally exhausted, but I knew that I needed to remain positive for him. So, periodically, I would find a quiet place to sit and relax, away from beeping machines, or get some fresh air and take a stroll around the hospital. I was able to return more relaxed and positive by taking time for myself.
2. Ask for help — but make sure to be specific about the kind of help you could use most.
I know — asking for help can be especially hard for introverts. We tend to want to go it alone. There are times, however, when you cannot go it alone. Typically, during family emergencies, people will reach out and ask how they can be of assistance. But it’s important to remember that help comes in many forms.
For example, you do not have to allow someone into your home (your sacred introvert space) in order to get a little help. If someone truly wants to help, you should be able to set the terms. Let me say that again: You (the caregiver) should be able to set the terms. Yes, setting boundaries as an introvert can be tough (some of us are such people-pleasers!), but it’s necessary.
I would recommend asking for help that you can reasonably handle. I probably wouldn’t want someone in my house cleaning or doing my laundry, but if someone offered to pick up my child after school or drop off a meal, I would appreciate it. That would be a nice, non-invasive gesture that’s meaningful when you are overwhelmed beyond belief.
My sister-in-law let my daughter stay at her house for four nights while my husband was hospitalized, which was one of the most helpful, and thoughtful, gestures during a very difficult time. It provided a good distraction for my daughter while I could focus on “adult” things.
As a side note, I noticed that during this time, some people only wanted to help on their terms. Yet no one knows what a caregiver needs better than the caregiver. Often what we want and need during these times are pretty basic — an errand we don’t have time to do, something we forgot at the store, etc. Do not let others tell you what you need. I said no several times to help that was offered that I did not want or need. I think it would be more helpful for “the organizers” to request a list of what would be helpful for the caregiver rather than assuming we all need unlimited meals or putting us in situations to accept help that makes introverts uncomfortable or adds to our anxiety.
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3. Write down everything, from to-do lists to what doctors say about your loved one’s condition.
Being admitted to an intensive care unit — after what you think will be a simple emergency room visit to take care of kidney stones — is overwhelming. Most medical emergencies are. My mind immediately turned to mush and stayed that way for two weeks.
I would often tell people, please don’t tell me anything that you expect me to remember. If it sounded important, I wrote it down. When the doctor came in and gave us a load of information that I didn’t understand, I wrote it down. Everything that I would normally remember to do, I wrote it down.
Forgetfulness becomes second nature when you’re suddenly thrust into a scary, unavoidable situation. As an introvert, emotional overload is already something I plan for. If I have a birthday party on Saturday, Sunday will be my downtime/recovery day. In this medical situation, there was minimal downtime/recovery time and I was constantly on mental overload. The lists helped me keep a semblance of control during such an uncontrollable time.
Sometimes, depending on what was going on, it was days before I made it back to the lists, but having the to-do lists and important reminders written down was helpful. It also allowed me to get to things when I had time and when I was more mentally prepared.
4. Do not feel like you have to take everyone’s advice — you know best.
When I say don’t feel like you have to take everyone’s advice, I am mostly talking about well-meaning friends and family. In life (and medical emergencies), you have to do what’s best for you and your family.
First and foremost, listen to the medical professionals. Do your own research, yes, but also listen to the doctors. They are the experts. Ultimately, everyone’s situation is different. What helps one person may not help another. Cousin Sara’s herbs and elixirs may not be helpful in your situation.
Even when I browse online forums specifically for my husband’s health condition, I take the information received with a grain of salt. There is a boatload of factors involved in a person’s medical condition. Therefore, friends and family, who may be well-meaning, may not be the best source for health-related insight.
For introverts, taking advice can already be a delicate matter. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, but I’ve come to realize that not all outside advice is beneficial. And some may be downright irrelevant to your situation. As a result, I’ve found it helpful to compartmentalize advice.
I also think it’s important to note that whether or not you take someone’s advice does not impact their lives. Many of us think we’re making others miserable when we don’t do what they want us to do. No. If that’s how they feel, that’s their choice. Our main focus should be ourselves — and our immediate family.
5. Join a support group, either a virtual one or in person.
As an introvert, the last thing I would consider (in any situation!) is joining an in-person support group. Face-to-face group interaction for introverts can be uncomfortable and overstimulating. (However, if that’s your thing, by all means!)
But I quickly learned that caregivers need support, and it can be valuable for you to find comfort among individuals who can relate to what you’re going through. An online support group provides a sense of neutrality that you typically don’t get from friends and family (who tend to advise rather than listen). Since caregiving can be so mentally draining, finding quality support can help you navigate your situation and find healthy coping strategies for your new normal.
All in All, Just Do the Best You Can
Thankfully, my husband recovered from the dire situation he was in (well, we were in). Of course, we continue to monitor his health and he sees his doctor for regular check-ups.
I learned a lot as a caregiver and believe introverts make excellent ones because we tend to be introspective and thoughtful. Many of us naturally want to help others, but we often need to strategize first. Sometimes we are thrown into situations in which we don’t have time to sit and ponder our response. We have to react quickly, which can be a challenge for us.
But take heart — many people are in your exact situation and are doing the best they can. Sometimes that’s all we can do. Don’t forget, though, it’s important to take care of yourself. Without guilt. If you are taking care of yourself first, you become better equipped to take care of others.
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