Professor explores loss of identity in cancer caregiving

Molly Spillman

The unspoken truth of being a caregiver for a loved one is an issue few understand, but many will go through during their life.

During Kent State’s School of Communication Studies’ research colloquium series on Friday, Nichole Egbert, a professor and graduate coordinator for the school, shed light on these issues while fostering an open dialogue about identity in caregiving.

Egbert focused on nine cancer caregivers in her research, but explored different relational and generational angles to encompass the broader caregiving community.

In 2015, about 43.5 million adults in the United States had provided unpaid care to an adult or child, according to a caregiver study conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons. These statistics are startling as the baby boomer generation continues to move into their elderly years.

Many are finding themselves stuck in a position of caregiving for a spouse or parent when they didn’t see that role in their personal identity.

“Most people can plan on being parents,” Egbert said. “Not many plan on being a caregiver.”

Egbert finds complications arise when there are identity gaps within different layers of people’s self-identity.

Debra Lamm, the student recruitment specialist for the College of Communication and Information, found gaps when her mother moved into her home over a decade ago.

“You have to constantly think about your own self image,” Lamm said. “Some days when I come in and have to be in my professional role, I am still in caregiver mode.

While each caregiving situation is unique, Egbert found common threads between the tasks completed and the struggles endured.

“The more you dig into this situation that so many Americans will go through, the more complications you see,” she said.

Throughout the session, Egbert shared excerpts from caregiver interviews and led a discussion with students and faculty to categorize the quotes into different identity gaps.

“Sometimes three or four things can be happening at the exact same time, not just one or two,” Egbert said.

Elizabeth Garlinger, a senior communications studies major, spoke of how the identity crisis of caregivers relates to students in college.

“It’s so easy to be isolated as college students, but in the future we can’t do that,” Garlinger said. “We are going to be outnumbered by the people that are older than us.”

Egbert said she was interested in this subject to “understand the overlap” of caregiving and figure out “what resources we can provide” to people who get thrown into a caregiving situation.

“This can happen to you so suddenly, and that’s what is so interesting to me,” Egbert said.

Egbert will continue to expand and refine her research to get ready to present to at a conference in Washington, D.C. in April.

Based on her research findings, Egbert said there are positives that can be drawn from such a heavy task as caregiving, such as getting closer to your loved ones and creating a closer bond.

“All of this changes us as human beings — that’s why I think this is so important,” Egbert said.

To learn more about the Spring 2017 research colloquium series, visit the School of Communication Studies website.

Molly Spillman is the College of Communication and Information reporter, contact her at [email protected].