The post-caregiver stage of being a caregiver (Episode 48)

In this episode, Kay Coughlin talks about some of the most common experiences of being a post-caregiver. What is a post-caregiver exactly? It’s the last of the four stages of being a caregiver. This is the stage that you enter when your family caregiver duties end, whether it’s by choice or because the person you were caring for gets better or passes away.

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Post-caregiver stage of being a caregiver (Episode 48)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver To Another. I am a sandwich family caregiver. That means I have kids at home and I am also the primary caregiver for my own mother. And I don’t believe the old stories and traditions about being a caregiver have to be true for us, for people like you and me. I believe we can have dreams. Even when we have caregiver responsibilities, we do have value as individuals. We deserve to say no, and to have our own lives. Nobody can do it all of course, but we can decide what’s okay with us, what’s not okay with us, and we can dare to be ourselves. This is episode 48.

This is the final episode in this mini series about what I think are the four stages of caregiver responsibilities. Like everything else you’re going to hear in this podcast, this isn’t about the care receiver or the needs of the care receiver. This is about helping you as a caregiver understand your own life. You can listen to whichever of these episodes is most helpful to you. And I’d also like to encourage you to recommend these episodes to any friends and colleagues who are also caregivers. The four stages I’ve been talking about are this the early caregiver, the short term, or more intense caregiver, the longterm or more stable caregiver situation.

And then today’s episode is about the post-caregiver. So let’s talk about what it’s like to be a post-caregiver. First of all, I just want to answer the question, how do you become a post-caregiver? Well, most people would think this is pretty easy to answer because we like to fall back on thinking that the most common reason that caregiver responsibilities will come to an end is because, to be blunt, the care receiver died.

But that’s a stereotype and I don’t much like stereotypes because they keep us from seeing the real person and the real situation in front of us. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are many times when someone moves into a post-caregiver journey because they have to move on, whether that’s by choice or for other reasons like being asked to leave or because something else just naturally ends.

Here’s a good example of one very common reason you can become a post-caregiver, but most of us just don’t think of it. As parents who have been heavily involved in the daily life of a child, and then these parents experience this post-caregiving stage when their kids leave home. And of course, that’s mostly what we know as becoming an empty nester. That’s the term we use for them.

From a lot of perspectives being an empty-nester or what I call a post-caregiver because of this reason is actually a very happy outcome in life. And it’s what we would think of as a positive reason for those primary caregiver duties to be behind you. That doesn’t make it easy at all.

I want to talk about today what I’ve learned about being a post-caregiver through my practice as a coach for family caregivers. Now I will tell you this is the only stage of being a caregiver that I haven’t experienced myself yet, because I am still in this with my own mom, who is my care receiver. And I also have my two teenage boys still living at home with me, so I am still in the middle of being a family caregiver and a sandwich family caregiver. And I haven’t even gotten to the empty-nester stage of all of this yet.

I’ve got a list here of seven things that I’ve noticed are very common to the experience of being a post-caregiver. But if you’re going through something that’s not on this list, which actually I would expect because we are humans and humans are very complex beings, I want you to know you are totally normal. Your post-caregiver life is not going to look like another person’s. You are not a copy of somebody else. You are an individual.

If you are struggling with your experience of being a post-caregiver, I really want to hear from you. So please reach out to me by email, or you can send me a DM on social media, and there are links to all of that in the show notes.

The first thing on my list about the experience of being a post-caregiver is grief. It’s the most obvious one I think probably because we do tend to associate becoming a post-caregiver with tremendous loss, like death. Now, I just want to be really clear that I know there is grief in all stages of being a caregiver and that’s for a lot of reasons. And often that’s associated with a sense of a loss of the way your life used to be.

So I think it would be really helpful to understand more about the six stages of grief. And yes, I did say six and not five, like you probably hear people talk about more often. So I’d like to recommend listening to a podcast episode with Brene Brown and David Kessler. And I’m going to put a link to that podcast in the show notes, I think is a really important one.

One of the things David Kessler explains in it is that there is this common misconception about the stages of grief. That we are supposed to go through them in order so that you would go from one to six, but that was never the intent of the research and publication of the original work on the five stages of grief. That’s why we hear about five stages more often because that’s what’s mostly been talked about up to now.

Grief really can come and go basically for the rest of your life after any relationship or situation. It’s totally normal. It’s totally natural. And the only problem here really is thinking that your grief is not normal or thinking that you’re doing it wrong.

Now, if you do find yourself stuck in grief or overwhelmed by it or unable to function and this is pretty common too, this is still a really normal human reaction. Please get some help from a professional therapist or a life coach or a real time support group.

Number two then is guilt. I have found that guilt is another extremely common feeling for these post-caregivers. It can be guilt about anything really, but what I’ve seen most is guilt that you dreamed about what your life would be like once you reach this post-caregiver stage or guilt that you are still living and that you want to go on living after your caregiver duties are done. It could be guilt that you feel joy and that you want to thrive and guilt that you are finally living a life you want, and maybe even living out your dreams.

I hear a lot of guilt also about promises the care receiver wanted the caregiver to make. And these are promises like that you won’t get married again, you will never sell this house, you will take care of your father after your mother is gone, you won’t spend a penny of family money on frivolous vacations, you will host Christmas every year and stuff like that. And those examples could go on and on. These actually are unreasonable promises to have requested in the first place, but most people don’t know that. And so caregivers can feel very guilty about not keeping them after their caregiver duties.

What I’ve come to understand about guilt is that a lot of this actually comes from human giver syndrome. And you know I talk a lot about that if you listen to my podcast at all. When we live our whole lives hearing the message that we should pour out everything we have to help other people thrive, but then our caregiver duties end anyway, because that’s the way life works. I think guilt is a natural feeling that if you had only poured out more of yourself, you could have somehow changed the circumstances, changed the ending. It just doesn’t help at all that the human giver system – and go back and listen to episode 35 if you want to learn more about what I mean by the human giver system – this system puts far too much responsibility and blame for the circumstances of the care receiver on the shoulders of the caregiver.

So guilt here is totally natural. I am going to be talking about boundaries and guilt in an upcoming podcast episode. So please watch for that.

Number three then is anger and resentment. Someone in this post-caregiver stage is very likely to carry around some anger. And resentment is just a very specific kind of anger.

And this might be anger at pretty much anything, but commonly there will be anger at people who didn’t help with the care receiver. People who didn’t help the caregiver lead a better quality of life while being a caregiver is another really common way I see anger show up. A lot of times this anger can come from a sense of abandonment or betrayal. And there’s this feeling that people simply stopped showing up or refused to show up when the caregiver needed them the most.

Another common reason people can feel anger here is because of money or finances. Many caregivers honestly have watched family members borrow money from the care receiver or make a claim to other resources like time or family heirlooms or cars or houses, and many caregivers feel that they are the ones who should have the right to claim those resources.

Since resentment is a really common sign that someone needs boundaries, my recommendation is to start learning how to set and enforce boundaries as soon as you start feeling resentment or any kind of anger, really, ideally while you are still actively involved in your caregiver responsibilities, but I want you to know it is never too late to start learning about boundaries and setting boundaries.

Number four then is a feeling that nobody understands you. People who have caregiver responsibilities very often end up feeling isolated at some point. Just let me point out here that it’s not a given that you will become isolated. It doesn’t have to happen to you, even though it commonly does. It’s one of the things I help my clients with a lot, because based on my experience, I have seen that isolation is like a slow acting poison for all humans. And it causes a lot of mental health issues over time.

Nevertheless caregivers do end up feeling isolated. And when those caregiver duties end, someone then in that post-caregiver stage can find they have kind of forgotten how to be in mutually loving relationships with people and be in even new relationships with people. They have forgotten how to do that.

And this happens because post-caregivers feel that they can’t trust people and they can’t ask for understanding or help. And this is what leads to this feeling that nobody understands you. It is quite literally the case that nobody can understand you, if you aren’t in social relationships, giving them a chance to. As I’ve said, many times, this is something to get professional help with as soon as you possibly can.

Number five is a feeling of trying to catch up with everybody else. A person in the post-caregiver stage is often going to feel like they have to catch up because they’ve been out of the loop and out of social circulation for so long. And if you feel like this, chances are pretty good that you are right and you have been away from everything for a long time, or even what feels like a long time to you.

The good news is this isn’t actually a problem. First of all, you aren’t required to compare yourself to other people and your self-worth does not come from how you measure up against other people. But also please be assured that you can learn whatever skills you need to, whether they are relationship skills or technology skills or anything else.

If you don’t believe that you can learn and change, I’d like to invite you to go listen to episode 34 of the podcast. And that’s the episode where I talk about how nobody is ever too old to change. That’s not an excuse.

Number six then is overwhelm. And this is just really common for a post-caregiver to feel. The overwhelm you feel could be related to making arrangements to close out the caregiver chapter of your life. And this would be things like closing out an estate, or even finding ways to bring a close to some relationships that you don’t want anymore, or that you don’t need any more.

Or your overwhelm could be coming from beginning something new or ramping up to do whatever is next for you like making new relationships or moving or finding a new job. Look, even figuring out how to be in therapy or work with a life coach can feel like a lot at first. Overwhelm is just a really normal feeling for humans. And it’s not a problem. It’s a symptom of something you need, or maybe it’s a cue that you just need to take care of yourself in a different way and probably get some help.

Number seven then, and this is the final one. And you know, I really think this is probably the one that’s underneath all of the others I’ve talked about so far. This one is feelings about your identity.

First, you’re probably going to feel a loss of identity. Like you don’t know who you are anymore, or what you’re going to do now, or what you even want. And then the next part of this is probably going to be about reclaiming your identity and remembering who you are and what you do want.

And I’m not at all surprised this is so common for caregivers for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s just really common for all humans to go through some kind of an identity crisis at some point. But second and most notable here is that people who have caregiver responsibilities are not encouraged to plan for their own future. This is all tied up again in the bigger idea of human giver syndrome and the way society tends to see caregivers. And I really want to encourage you to learn more about that, but basically by the time you enter this post-caregiver stage, you quite literally may not know what you are going to do now.

Some signs that you are suffering because you’re mixed up or just at a loss about your own identity could be defensiveness, feeling ashamed because you don’t know what you want, hiding yourself and hiding your uncertainty from other people, or even working really hard to try to prove yourself to your own self or prove yourself to other people.

People who aren’t sure about their own identity will often go through the first six things I listed here. And one of the keys to getting relief from this suffering related to your identity is to figure out who you are and start claiming what you want and need. Now, I’m not going to lie to you. That is not at all easy to do, but it is possible. And it’s really wonderful and rewarding work. And it’s the kind of self-awareness that really frees you from being stuck in what other people think of you. If this sounds like something you want, again, I’m going to encourage you to get help from a professional therapist or life coach or real-time support group. And I’ll tell you that work on identity is something that I do with my own clients quite a lot.

So that’s it for my mini series on these four stages that I’ve identified of being a person with caregiver responsibilities. I really hope that you found this to be helpful and that you understand more about yourself.

Now I hope that this point that you’re able to be more compassionate with yourself too. And to really know that whatever you’re going through, it’s normal for you because you’re a human. And I also hope that you’ve told a friend about this series or that you will tell a friend who needs to learn about whatever stage of being a caregiver that they are in right now.

Thank you so much for listening. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at And that is Facilitator On Fire dot net. There’s a lot of good stuff there, including links to my book, and to learn more about human giver syndrome and to all of the workshops and webinars that I do on human giver syndrome and on boundaries

If you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers who want to dare to live their own lives, please follow me on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes.

If you liked this episode, please leave a review. And think of two people you can tell about it. Word of mouth is the very best way to help podcasts grow. And if this podcast grows, it’s going to help more caregivers find their way here to get the help they need in whatever stage of being a caregiver they’re in. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver To Another.

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Chief Facilitator of Facilitator on Fire, has a dream to create a world that is generously inclusive of all adult generations. The best place to connect with Kay is on Instagram or in the "From One Caregiver to Another" boundaries discussion community.

"Caregiver Coaching" is for family caregivers who want to dare to live their own life. Facilitator on Fire's "Building Trust Across Generations" seminar helps leaders and managers build amazing teams that are attractive to people of all ages. Kay's keynote address, "Top Myths of Leading Generations," helps businesses see the hard costs of miscommunication between generations.