• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Caring for a Sick or Disabled Loved One

What to do when you have to be a caregiver and a graduate student at the same time.

April 29, 2018

Charlena will begin their doctoral studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London in Fall 2018. Follow them on @cmichelleart or view their artist page.

Life’s milestones and unexpected changes remind us that life continues regardless of the demands of our programs. Unfortunately for some, that could mean a loved one is suffering a life threatening illness and/or disability. Most recently, my father has been diagnosed with stage three esophageal and gastric cancer, and I had to make some difficult decisions about caring for him and my commitment to school. In this short time, I’ve learned a few things that I believe could be helpful for others in similar situations.

Be Honest With Yourself
​When I first found out my father had cancer, I wanted to drop everything, move out of my apartment, and help care for him 24/7, because I thought that I knew what was best for his treatment. Quickly I realized that I just didn’t have the capacity to be a full-time caregiver, and that I wanted to continue with my education. When the doctors told us how aggressive the cancer was — we both know that he is going to die from the cancer; however, we are unsure how long the chemo will stave off the growth of new cancerous cells — I began to rethink my decision to act as a full-time caregiver and what it might mean to take a leave of absence.

I had to think about my life outside of my father’s illness. This is something I urge others to do when caring for a loved one. Often times, we begin to internalize the pain our loved ones are going through and wear it as our own. We become consumed with it.  Be honest about what you are able to do. Help them select a home health aide, sit with a family member, bring them a meal, attend an appointment — these are all ways to show you care without being a full-time caregiver. While parenting is different in some ways from being a caregiver, finding the balance is critical, something that many parents in school have mastered. Even those who do decide to become a full-time caregiver, don’t feel guilty for taking time away from school. You need to make the best choice for yourself.

Lean On Others
After finding out my father’s diagnoses, plus coupled with my history of depression and anxiety, I immediately reached out to my mentor and advisors and scheduled an appointment with a new therapist. Having that open line of communication with people that want to see me flourish has been helpful during this difficult time. I admit, at first, I felt like maybe I was using it as a crutch, but I realized I needed help. It was okay to ask for additional time on assignments or schedule phone conferences instead of in-person meetings. Letting others know what you need and how to help you, it the best way to make it through grad school but also caring for family.

Asking my aunts and uncles to step in on days that I could not make it to his appointments or when he was in the hospital for over a week helped put me at ease that he was cared for and surround by love in my absence. Communicate with your family about your commitments to graduate school just like with your department and advisors. Keeping everyone in the loop is most important. Caring.com put together a list of apps for caregivers, some of which allow you to follow the progress of a loved one while far away. This is a great tool, especially so you and your loved one aren’t burnt out from “how are they doing?” questions that you probably get a hundred times a day. Family can check their progress on their phone and during visits focus on things besides the illness.

Make Time For You
Times that I am away from my dad, I feel guilty for going out for drinks with my friends or enjoying myself; however, being a hermit is not realistic or healthy. Spending time with others and retaining some normalcy is a good thing. It’s so very easy to beat yourself up for having fun while a loved one is sick, but not continuing your life won’t make them better. You cannot care for someone else, when you aren’t well. So self-care during this time is critical. Most often, your sick family member will want you to enjoy life and take care of yourself. My dad has been so understanding of my choice to continue school and not be his full-time caregiver. He encourages me to spend time with family and friends and do the things I love, like painting and collaging. Finding outlets for self can help ease some of the stress during this time and may bring your closer to your sick family member.

What is one tip you’d give someone caring for loved one?

[Image by Unsplash user Rawpixel through Creative Commons License.]


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