Caring For Yourself, While Caring for Another
With life expectancy growing each decade, you may find yourself responsible for another. Whether it is a spouse, parent or other relative, it is easy to forget about caring for yourself. At this point in my life, both my husband and I do not have parents to care for, but I have increasingly been the sounding board for friends who are struggling to care for another and all that it involves. Arrangements for care can include everything from doing a weekly shopping trip, arranging doctor's appointments or help with housecleaning to finding a healthcare professional, dispensing medicine/treatment or searching for a suitable assisted living arrangement. All this may be complicated by a parent or loved one falling into a cloud of frustration as Alzheimer's or dementia alters their personality. At some point in your life, you may be called to accept the role of caregiver for a dear friend or family member. And when you do, you will have to be prepared to make self-care a priority or you may drown in the demands of such a responsibility.
This caregiving has been part of many cultures where families share the same home or live close by, but in the US we tend to move away from home or a parent has retired to a distant retirement community. I have known more than one friend who has had to relocate their parent to a closer locale to give the care that is needed as their parent has aged. Caregiving is a selfless act of love - your parent was once your caregiver and now it is your turn. This often falls to a female member of the family and can be very stressful if you are trying to juggle your retirement time i.e., traveling, enjoying a new hobby, meeting with fellow retirees or taking on new volunteering responsibilities. In addition to caregiving, thoughts regarding your loved one's financial situation or other estate issues can cause additional stress.
You may never be fully prepared for what’s coming. And although your obligations can be overwhelming, you must not neglect your own health. It is imperative that you set your intention on being your best for the person you are caring for as well as for yourself. The following are suggestions to help you keep things in perspective while caring for both yourself and your loved one.
Eat Right - This is something that should go without saying, but it is tempting to avoid meals or while waiting for a doctor's appointment, visit the vending machine and eat a candy bar or chips. Your visits to the grocery store should include filling your cart with wholesome foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Many of these things can be portable and can fill that hunger hole when tests are taking longer than expected. When making evening meals, make extra for lunch the next day or even a quick dinner later in the week.
Plan for Exercise - Maintaining a fitness regimen or even just a daily walk will not only help to keep your body conditioned, it’s also a great stress-buster. If possible this can be done with your loved one. It is good for them as well as for you and getting out into the fresh air is never a bad thing.
Sleep - This may be a tough one. I have always been a great sleeper, but my 60's has brought on a more restless sleep. Sleep though does refresh your body and your mind. Establishing a regular sleep schedule can help and it is not a crime to take a short nap if your body needs it. Granted, your sleep schedule may be interrupted during the night due to emergencies, but if you plan to retire and rise at the same hour, this will allow your brain time to recharge and be the best you.
Quiet Time - When I was traveling for months and months, back and forth, each day to my mother's bedside, before going to bed, I would take a warm bath, with candles burning and soft music playing and just clear my mind. Maybe you spend quiet time with your Bible, or you do a guided meditation or just sit listening to the birds in your garden, whatever it is, it calms the mind and gives you the time and renewed energy to cope.
Ask for Support - Being a primary caregiver can be a daunting task and like me, I felt I was the only one who could give the "right" kind of care to my mother. Having a support network of friends or professionals will keep you sane. I am now the shoulder that some of my friends need while they care for their loved one or sometimes just a person to cry to with frustration. I once had a friend who had to find two different homes for her elderly parents because her father's dementia was a danger to her mom. Several times he lashed out in frustration and it was the hardest part of finding them a facility that cared for different levels of support so they could be close but still safe. With the help of the graduated care facility's social services staff, she was able to navigate this very stressful time in the care of her parents. The responsibility is not easy and don't try to do it alone.
Continue to Explore your Passions or Hobbies - Don't forget those things you decided to do and explore now that you are retired. One of my loves is exploring my ancestry. My 90 year old, very alert and healthy aunt has supplied many gaps and has shared some great pictures of grand and great-grand parents that I would never have seen and would never had known about if I didn't start the conversation with her. She does not live close by, but she has an iPad and a cell phone and is quite a techie. I wish that I had explored more with her sister, my mother, and regret not recording my grandfather's stories about his travels around the world serving as a 1st class waiter on a British Merchant ship from 1918-1922. You might even be surprised at the hobbies you might share; my grandmother shared a love of sewing, knitting, crocheting and crafting. When I visited her in a nursing home after several strokes and she lost communication, I would just sit and tell her about all the things I had made my little girls and her eyes would brighten and she would try to smile. Keeping up with what you love whether it is quilting and genealogy like I do today or gardening, painting or just trying something new will feed your soul and help you handle the stress of caregiving.
I have never claimed to be an expert on topics like the above, but I hope you find these suggestions something to think about as you yank that wheelchair out of your trunk, sit in yet another hospital waiting room, interview the latest home health aide (or fire the last home healthcare aide) or see your loved one change in ways you never expected. And if you know someone who is having difficulties caring for a love one, why not share this post!