The Myth of the Caregiver Superhero

Dec 26, 2013 | Updated Feb 25, 2014

When I was a little kid, I thought my dad was Superman. He built homes for a living, so I always saw him in a very physical role, in control of situations, and able to handle whatever came his way. He was, without a doubt, the protector of our family. It wasn't until I became a parent myself that I realized that the ideal of a superhero was all in the eyes of the beholder.

As mere mortals, we all have days that are better than others, moments of elated success, and challenging times rife with self-doubt. Nowhere is the myth of the superhero more problematic than it is with family caregivers, who often harbor unreasonable expectations and then kick themselves for falling short.

With this in mind, I wanted to discuss an article written by Dr. Nancy Snyderman in last month's AARP Magazine. She did a terrific job of relating to and prescribing solutions for anyone suffering from the illusion of the family caregiver superhero.

Dr. Synderman is the chief medical director for NBC News and you've probably seen her on the Today Show, where she regularly addresses health and wellness issues. In addition to Dr. Snyderman's responsibilities as a medical correspondent, she is also an accomplished surgeon. Personally, I have been a fan of Dr. Snyderman for some time, and my magazine, Caring Today, was fortunate enough to feature a cover story by her providing tips for coping with caregiving responsibilities.

When I read Dr. Snyderman's AARP article, I was saddened to read that she had been caring for her own father, who was gravely ill. By all accounts, Dr. Snyderman should be the prototypical caregiving superhero. But despite her tremendous resources and extensive repertoire of knowledge, she felt overwhelmed by her new role.

"I had a front row seat to the chaos that many families experience as they seek to coordinate the care for a loved one," she writes. Yet, you would think, given Dr. Snyderman's medical background and her vast network of physician friends, she'd be disproportionately prepared her for her role as a family caregiver. That's the thing: Caregiving levels the playing field.

Like any of us trying to balance our personal lives with the responsibilities of caring for a loved one, Dr. Snyderman was stretched to her limits, experiencing sleep deprivation and gaining weight because of altered eating habits. She was "emotionally raw." It's the same story I hear over and over again from family caregivers across all walks of life. Simply put, if you don't pay careful attention, caregiving can quickly transform your day-to-day life into one that is unrecognizable to you.

The key is to change things before it gets to that point!

To help right her ship, Dr. Snyderman made a decision to change things NOW and to take initiate a period of repair and restoration. "It was time to step back into my own life," she says. This meant relinquishing the unrealistic goal of doing it all singlehandedly -- like the proverbial superhero -- and to start sharing her load. Dr. Snyderman made "me time" a priority, exercising regularly and eating balanced meals. But it all started with a single step: deciding to make a change!

You may not be a renowned health care expert, nor have a vast support network and boundless financial resources. That's OK! You do have the single most important resource necessary to make positive change: your personal commitment to doing so!

When you're in the throes of family caregiving and experiencing personal disappointment because you're not living up to your own superhero expectations, remember: We are all flawed when it come to family caregiving. "You can't be all things to all people," says Dr. Snyderman in her article for Caring Today. "You have to give yourself permission to step back." I couldn't agree more.

As we approach the season of resolutions, resolve to make changes that allow you to thrive in your life. When this happens, you will feel more fulfilled, happier and be better equipped to deliver the best care possible.

And, if you still want to strive for superhero status, do it as a superhero advocate... for your own personal health and well-being.

Help yourself. Help others.