Caretaker vs Rescuer

Last updated: September 2022

I was in the family room on the first floor when I heard a loud bang and thump followed by a cry to help from my wife. After running up the stairs, I saw her laying on the master bedroom floor curled up in a fetal position. She was visibly shaken, stunned and unable to stand up or move. Knowing that you never move someone who is unable to turn or sit up due to pain, I called 911. We then waited for the EMTs to arrive.

Roles reversed

It did not take long before an evaluation was completed, and a support collar was put in place. From there it was a trip to the emergency room, where we learned she had broken the C2 vertebrae in her neck. While a serious injury, fortunately she was not paralyzed from the neck down by the broken bone. We soon learned it would require several weeks and months for a full recovery to take place.

Within a matter of minutes our lives changed. My role changed from husband to caretaker, cook, server, housecleaner, personal caregiver, and the list just went on and on. The same woman who had helped me through 2 bouts of prostate cancer, non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Covid Pneumonia now needed my support. Our roles were reversed in a matter of minutes.

How my wife helped me

Most people fall into the role of caregiver due to circumstances. Typically, there may be paternal or maternal feelings at play. In some cases a patient is critical for a time and slowly recovers. It took me a few weeks to recover from prostate surgery, and I was told do not pick up any weight over 10 pounds for a week. While the limits increased with time, it was my wife who was the one carrying the groceries and taking out the trash while I walked along beside her hands free.

During my weeks and months of radiation for prostate cancer I was the one who looked OK but felt drained and unable to do much due to the treatment and the lack of sleep that resulted from hormone therapy. Once again it was she who encouraged me.

Serial rescuers

During our several recoveries, I became aware of a thing called serial rescuers. They are folks who suddenly come out of the woodwork and are on the lookout for someone who needs help. Initially you as the patient are grateful for the attention they offer, but after a while you notice a loss of boundaries. The emotional and physical work needed to help someone in need is quite draining, yet somehow these folks appear to have endless energy and somehow manage to persist.

As time goes on, you “the patient” can find yourself in a difficult situation. On one hand it’s nice to find someone is willing to extend themselves. On the other hand, you get the uneasy sense something is not quite right. At the same time, you cannot put our finger on it. During both of our recoveries, my wife and I had run into this situation.

After some digging, I learned that rescuers are not caregivers but folks who often have difficulty getting in touch with their own emotions and who can experience low self-esteem. The serial rescuer as a type is not out for the patient’s best interest. Rather they are seeking a sense of value and identity by helping others to the extreme. If not checked by you the patient or by someone who recognizes the developing trend, the resulting attention and care can be so overwhelming it can hurt your recovery.

Taking a step back

If you find yourself working with a rescuer vs someone who is encouraging your healing, step back and learn to politely say No Thank You. Remind the person that you need to make progress on your own and need help only when you request it.

The following wisdom is remarkably astute and a good reminder to offer when someone is a bit too helpful: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

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