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Restructuring life after caregiving ends

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist

Dear Carol: I helped my mom take care of my dad for years after he'd had a stroke. Dad died last year, and Mom was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his death. Apparently, she had cancer symptoms for some time but was so focused on Dad that she didn't follow up on her own health. Mom died last month under the care of a wonderful hospice organization, but now I am lost.

I'm divorced and never had children. Caregiving was my life for more than 10 years. I have enough money not to have to work so I just sit and watch TV, not even registering what I'm watching. I once thought I'd travel, but now I have no desire to do so.

I understand that I need to build a new life for myself but I don't even know where to start. How do people "recover" from caregiving once it's over? MB

Dear MB: I'm so sorry about the recent deaths of both of your parents. Sadly, your mother's situation isn't uncommon for caregivers. It's easy to ignore our own health while remaining completely focused on the needs of those who depend on us.

Now is the time to rebuild your own life, and that means your own health, as well. You will likely have to take the idea of finding a new normal in your life one step at a time.

First, I'd suggest that you tackle your grief. If you aren't taking advantage of the hospice grief program that follows the death of a loved one under their care, try contacting them and let them assist you.

Alternately, you could seek grief counseling on your own. It's possible that just a few sessions with a grief counselor could help you clarify your personal grieving process so that you can navigate your post-caregiving stress and the loss of your parents in a healthy manner.

While grieving takes time and everyone must go through the process in their own way, you could gradually regain the interests you once had if you reach out to others in your daily life. Because you aren't working and have likely put old friendships aside to use your time for caregiving, you may feel like there's no place to start.

One way is to understand that many people are happy to hear from an old friend, so you might try contacting people whose company you enjoyed in the past and see if you can set up coffee or lunch.

Something else that you can do is become involved in a religious community if you aren't already part of one.

Additionally, volunteer opportunities abound and these opportunities aren't just about helping others. Most of them offer the added benefit of socializing with like-minded people. You may feel that you want to get as far away from sick people as possible, or you may feel that you want to help others through their journey. Either is fine.

Depending on what is best for you, try volunteering for a political or environmental group, or for hospice, a hospital, or a nursing home.

Renewing old acquaintances and making new friends may infuse your life with more meaning. You might even become interested in travel again if you meet someone with similar interests who would enjoy going along.

As with many things, finding your new normal is about balance. You need to balance your ongoing need to grieve with a need for outside connections. You wouldn't have written if you hadn't realized that you need a change. Take it slowly, but look for ways to connect with others. You'll be much healthier and happier for it.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carolbursack@msn.com.

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