When a Doctor Becomes a Caregiver


Quratulain Syed, MD
Assistant Professor of Medicine
Division of General Medicine and Geriatrics
Emory University School of Medicine

Late last year, I encountered the realities of caregiving personally. Although my father had officially retired, he was still working as a professional banker at the time he was diagnosed with an advanced cancer. I have over 6 years of experience practicing geriatric medicine, where I am used to giving bad news to patients and caregivers, and lecturing caregivers on caregiver stress.  However, none of this had prepared me for the roller coaster ride awaiting me and my family during my father’s illness.

I was lucky to have the privilege of playing the “doctor card” as a caregiver.  I got consultative advice from colleagues and friends whenever I needed it, and had access to medical experts who were beyond supportive and courteous in providing care to my father. Despite all of this, however, my administrative assistant’s comment that “you are falling apart” truly expressed my state of mind. The last six months of my father’s life gave me an in-depth view of the invaluable role of caregivers, who navigate a very complex health care system, often without having a medical background.

In this blog, I’d like to share a few tips from caregivers’ literature, which I found helpful:

  • Acknowledge that you can’t hold up the sky like Atlas. Do not hesitate to get help, early on.
  • You are never alone. Do not hesitate to share your feelings with people around you—they may be your family, friends, colleagues, clinicians, etc. You may also consider caregiver support resources offered by the American Geriatrics Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society, and other such organizations.
  • Do not feel guilty in taking a little time out for yourself every day (or at least a few times a week). It can be in the form of a 10-minute trip to a café, half an hour at the gym, or a five minute meditation ritual at bedtime.
  • Make sure you get optimal sleep everyday, even if it involves switching when you sleep, and sharing some duties with other caregivers.
  • Make sure you get the best nutrition you can. You need to be healthy to take care of your loved one.
  • Have a discussion with your loved one about their wishes. Talk about medical care, financial issues, and end-of-life rituals before it is too late. You can get assistance from the medical team in completing healthcare advance directives, and from a lawyer regarding the financial will.
  • Consider grief counseling after the death of a loved one. Hospice agencies often provide grief counseling.
  • Connecting with spirituality can help with healing. My personal favorite is a poem “When I die”, written by the Sufi poet Rumi. I have shared my favorite lines below:

“It seems like a sunset
but in reality it is a dawn
when the grave locks you up
that is when your soul is freed”

I hope you have found these tips helpful, and I look forward to reading additional tips that you may want to share with other caregivers as well.