Sunday, February 5, 2012

Creating a Support Network

"You're not going to live forever. He has to learn to be on his own, and the sooner, the better." My husband and I recently heard those words, and they struck us at a very deep level.  Like everyone who has caregiving responsibilities, we worry about what will happen to our loved one when we are gone.

That's why every caregiver needs a supportive network. The larger and more helpful your network is, the better off you are. But, as we all know, building a supportive network around your loved one is not easy. Who do you know who isn't busy? Who is willing to learn about mental illness, and who is has enough compassion to enter that world?

I will confess that this is an area in which I haven't found much success.  So far my support network is small, and that counts two family members with paws. (Quite honestly, the most extraordinary among us is a calico cat who always seems to know when bad times come and parks herself on top of my loved one, purring. Her companionship is quite a blessing.)

The most obvious choices for a network are spouses, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives. Some, if not most, will decline the offer to become involved.  This is an area in which we must strive to not become bitter. You don't want reluctant recruits anyway, do you? If at all possible, build a network that will outlast your life.

For that reason, it's important to keep inviting people over time. It's easier to get paid professionals involved. (Because you pay them, apparently.) You also can branch out to include volunteers from organizations. Never turn away anyone who can occasionally check on your loved one when you are on a respite trip, cook a meal or take your loved one to a doctor.

Regular visits from family members can help your loved one, even if the reaction is not ideal. (As Tom Smith wrote in "A Balanced Life," the more unpredictable your loved one is, the more you need balanced and mature people in your network who will not be offended.) You can encourage people to take NAMI's Family-to-Family class on mental illness to learn more. People in your network not only need to understand the situation, they also are encouraged to share observations with you.

Does all this make you feel sorry for yourself because no one is helping you? Reach out at least online or join a support group.  I'm active in Mental Health America's Families in Touch as well as co-leading a Christian support group called Loving Someone With Mental Illness. That gives you a place to find support and get help when you need to figure it all out.

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