BY JENNIFER L. FITZPATRICK, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP
“She heroically cared for her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease.” “He’s a real hero in the way he’s caring for his wife who was diagnosed with Lewy Body dementia.” I’ve heard many versions of this sentiment referencing someone caring for a loved one with dementia as a “hero.” While such remarks are intended as compliments, the term “hero” can unintentionally pressure mere mortal caregivers to be superheroes. Here are 5 reasons why those caring for loved ones with dementia should not strive to be heroes:
- Heroes are super-human. Dementia caregivers are not. Dementia caregivers are simply human beings doing their best to take care of someone they love whose brain is not working properly. They don’t possess the super powers or mystical abilities of a superhero. Caregivers sometimes wish they did have super powers. But to stay sane they must acknowledge that they can’t fix all the challenges that accompany a dementia diagnosis.
- Heroes tend to have no social life. The Fox Television show Gotham depicts a teenage Bruce Wayne training for his future as Batman rather than playing sports, video games or just hanging out with friends.
While heroes like Bruce Wayne don’t socialize much, dementia caregivers who want to be physically and mentally healthy should. It’s essential to get breaks from taking care of your loved one by seeing other friends and family, exercising and enjoying hobbies.
- Heroes don’t always collaborate well. Heroes often have difficulty admitting when they need help. For example, Superman tends to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders.
While many dementia caregivers struggle with asking for and accepting help, especially initially, it is absolutely essential for the caregiver’s well-being. No caregiver should exist in a vacuum. Healthy caregivers need to say “yes” at least sometimes when other friends and family members want to offer support.
- Heroes are invulnerable. The DC Comics’ website cites invulnerability as a superpower possessed by both Wonder Woman and Superman.
I have never met a dementia caregiver who wasn’t vulnerable. Caregivers give their money, energy and time to care for a loved one, often expecting nothing or very little in return. They are frequently criticized by others in the family for “not doing it right.” They are also vulnerable to physical and mental health conditions when they martyr themselves in favor of caregiving.
- Heroes are secretive and lonely. Heroes can’t be themselves all the time. Most superheroes are dressing up in costumes and hiding their true identities. Very few people know the real person behind the hero façade.
Caregivers whose costume includes acting like they always have everything together are typically falling apart behind closed doors.
Aim to be a real-life, human, good enough dementia caregiver. Maintain relationships. Socialize. Have realistic expectations of yourself. And most importantly ask for and accept help. Stop trying to be a hero—it’s impossible and unnecessary.
Jennifer L. FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), the founder of Jenerations Health, is the author of Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing The Stress of Caring For Your Loved One. She has appeared on ABC, CBS, Sirius XM and in Redbook, Forbes and U.S. News & World Report. To download a free chapter of the book, go to www.cruisingthroughcaregiving.com.