A caregiver whose mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s recently shared a common concern I often hear. “I know I am stressed and exhausted from several years of caring for my mother but I just can’t seem to find the time to do anything for myself. I feel guilty if I leave her for too long, even on those days when I have home care assistance.”
This kind of thinking, in addition to extremely demanding work schedules, can also haunt healthcare professionals.
Sometimes self-care feels SELF-ish. If we as caregivers (whether personal or professional) do not invest some time and resources in nurturing ourselves we will burn out. I speak from the experience of caring for my mother and my husband. Although neither of them was bedridden, I took on caregiving to varying degrees. With Gary, I was his sole caregiver and what I took on was significant. In some ways, it helped me to know I was making a difference. In other ways, I pushed myself beyond my own limits and suffered the consequences.
It may feel like it isn’t possible to give too much, especially to a family member experiencing chronic or terminal illness but there are healthy boundaries caregivers would be well advised to maintain. We only have so much energy to expend in a day, week or month. If we are doing things to support ourselves then we are able to regenerate, re-energize and re-source. This increases our longevity as a caregiver along with our well of patience and understanding.
Here are some tips ‘n tools for extending your ability to be a supportive caregiver in a longer-term situation where a loved one’s health has been compromised or for healthcare professionals:
1. Communicate with your loved one. If the person you are caring for isn’t mentally incapacitated then let them know you are there for them but you also need to put some things in place so you can continue to be there. Get help having this conversation if you need to. There are ways to design the dialogue so they don’t feel guilty as if they are putting you through something or feel like you are angry or upset about the situation. Be clear before you sit down to have this discussion that this is not about blame, it is about consciously creating a care plan for BOTH of you. For healthcare professionals, ask for the support you need. Don’t allow stigmas or limiting beliefs about how care providers should be strong and just deal get in your way. Find a counselor, mentor, coach, co-worker, or support group where you can communicate with confidentiality to address your stress and challenges. We are all human and we must start allowing for the same human part of us that gives us the ability to provide compassionate care to also be cared for without judgment.
2. Go see your doctor regularly. Make sure you take time for your check-ups in the middle of all the other medical appointments on the calendar. If you haven’t exercised in awhile, then talk to your doctor about setting you up for #3…which is…
3. Exercise. Get out and into the world. Find a local running track, hiking path, gym class or dance class and move. There is nothing but upsides to exercise. It changes brain chemistry, increases oxygen intake, reduces stress and has tons of documented great physical side effects like lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, reducing weight…as I said…all good stuff.
Being well helps you continue to help others so it is a gift to you and to them! Win/win as they say.