Caregiving can be an ever-shifting challenge as a loved one’s health issues demand new treatments, new supports, and new routines.

These changes can be hard to take in, especially when a loved one’s condition has ups and downs that sometimes provide hope for improvement. The new year can be a natural time to reassess and consider whether it makes sense to embrace a new normal for your loved one’s condition.

For me, my journey to a new normal began when my husband, Don, suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down. At first, we had hope that he would improve, and I didn’t want to let go of that hope. In addition to surgeries and hospitalizations, Don had doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment. He worked with therapists to aid his speech and movement, but he was never able to regain the use of his body.

I eventually had to give up the hope that he would. As sad as that sounds, it was ultimately freeing, because I stopped focusing on how to change things and instead entered a more accepting and ultimately happier period of this new phase in our lives. Don and I lived with the results of his stroke for 6-1/2 years, when it eventually led to his death, and as difficult as those years were, they also gave us a new closeness and a new appreciation for each other, once I accepted the new normal in our lives.

We were able to find ways to have fun, expand our methods of communication, and explore new ways to be together as a couple. But it all began by accepting our new normal.

So if you ache for a past that won’t return, what can you do instead to accept your new life and its new normal? Here are some ideas:

1) Find the Fun
Fun is important. It brings joy to life, and I found that if I shifted my focus to the fun that was possible, I stopped focusing so much on the past. Don and I loved to visit with family and friends, so I hosted regular potlucks, which were easy for me—no cooking necessary—and these gatherings brought lightness and connection into our home. We would also invite our grandchildren over to decorate cookies or gingerbread houses and delight in the smiles they would provide. There were ways to still enjoy our life together, and I made finding them my mission.

2) Face the Challenges 
There are going to be challenges, but if you face them, you may find ways to hop over them. Whether the difficulties involve physical disabilities or mental ones, whether they require assistance from a nurse or family member, there are ways to tackle problems if you consider them and brainstorm ways to handle them. In our situation, even the simplest outing became a challenging event requiring help to maneuver Don and his wheelchair. However, I discovered a theater where Don’s wheelchair could fit down the aisles for movies. I also surveyed restaurants to find places where his big wheelchair could be accommodated. I found that I enjoyed finding ways to surprise Don with new adventures, and he also had fun watching me find solutions to the various problems along the way.

3) Take a Breath
Caregiving is not easy, even when a new normal is accepted. It’s important to take time to breathe, to look at the clouds, to accept the wild roil of emotions that can accost you. So, however you’re feeling, remind yourself that it’s okay. If emotions overcome you, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong or haven’t accepted your new normal, it simply means you’re doing something hard that requires you to express some difficult emotions sometimes. So share them with a friend or support group or a diary, and give yourself a mental hug of compassion for what you’re traversing. Remind yourself that grief and anger can be part of this journey. That’s normal, so however you’re feeling, remember, it’s okay.

There is also no timetable. Acceptance of a new normal is different for every family and every family member, and it may have to happen over and over again. We are all on different paths even when we walk together, so take the hand of those you love and walk into this new year with a new acceptance of them and yourself.

Thank you for reading, please share with a friend, and be well. —KK

Please consider making a donation to the Kathi Koll Foundation so you can help make a difference in struggling family caregivers’ lives. Thank you!


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