Did you make a New Year’s resolution? What would help you stick with it?
Caregivers already have a deep understanding of the discipline needed for resolutions. Goals, logistics, and organizational skills do more than juggle a complicated life; they are critical to the well-being of your loved one. Yet, many caregivers don’t apply the same attention to their own experience.
I’ve always been a diligent planner and those skills were in high demand while I was a caregiver for my teenaged son throughout his chronic illness. My life overflowed with requirements for my son’s well-being, and I was a poster child for the consequences of a caregiver neglecting their own needs. The proverbial “self-care” was WAY down on my priority list – to the point where it was barely visible to the naked eye.
I know, I know… there’s plenty of conventional wisdom and real research to support the importance of caregivers attending to their own needs along with those of their loved one. Perhaps you’ve heard metaphors like:
“Be sure to fill up your own tank so you have the energy to keep going.”
And there’s a long list of ideas intended to help a caregiver feel better, stronger, and more resilient, including:
- Get good sleep
- Eat healthy food
- Exercise regularly
- Sustain your relationship with your spouse or partner
- Maintain connections with your friends
- Stay up to date on your own health care
- Clear your head with mindfulness practices
- Express your feelings through journaling, art, or music
- Spend time in nature
- Keep your sense of humor
- Ask for and accept help
As logical as they all sounded, I pushed aside every item on this list at some point because I couldn’t imagine how to NOT prioritize my son’s needs first.
And, I bristled at the well-meaning advice of people who started a conversation with “you really should…” or “have you ever thought of trying…” It just set my teeth on edge!
“Really?” I thought. “You want me to add one more thing to my already impossible to-do list!” Never mind that the advice often came from a loving friend or family member, and that the idea was eminently reasonable.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be some kind of superhero or a martyr-mom who found validation in her sacrifices. The stakes for my son’s care were high, no one knew the routine as well as I did, and I knew that things went smoothest with me at the wheel.
Even if I wanted to try something on that list, I was often so damn tired that I couldn’t find the energy to make the effort. Or I was so stressed that I didn’t have the patience to work through the inevitable complications that come with trying something new.
Underneath the frustration, I knew that I couldn’t function on high alert all the time, and the strain of pushing through did take its toll. I needed to recharge, even if it was just a little bit at a time.
So, I tried a different approach to adding something new – low expectations.
This definitely ran counter to my usual high-achiever style. Instead of trying to master the new idea, I learned to reframe my expectations so there was a low bar for success. I found it easier to try something if I didn’t feel like I had to do it perfectly or even consistently from the start. And with each effort, I tried to notice the benefit so I’d be more likely to continue.
Instead of a quick slice of pizza at the hospital cafeteria, I could make the best of the decent salad bar. My schedule was unpredictable, but I could take advantage of a lull and arrange an impromptu date night with my husband, or dinner with friends. Or I could occasionally put off a chore in favor of taking a walk or a bath.
Sounds like small potatoes, right? But that’s the point. I wasn’t looking for radical change, just something modestly doable.
The good news is that recharging promotes its own momentum. If I ate a healthy meal, or got a good night’s sleep, or squeezed in a 20-minute workout, I felt less depleted, more willing to do it again, and better able to handle the next round of challenges.
This is not to say that it was easy to stick with whatever self-care resolution I tried. Life was incredibly stressful, and prone to surprise crises, during which times I was likely to backslide away from my better habits. For me, the key was to see the setback as temporary, avoid chastising myself for “failing” to keep up, and allow myself to return when I could breathe easier.
It was time for me to take my own frequently given advice – “Be gentle with yourself.”
And I learned more about the last item on the list – ask for and accept help. I learned that others could do a fine job with items on my to-do list, and many people were hungry to try. It truly made my husband happy to cover the home front so I could get out to a movie with our daughter. I also tried to reframe how I saw other people’s encouragement – from clueless nagging to loving support.
Ultimately, there’s no magic checklist that will alleviate all the impact of relentless stress and worry for caregivers. There are real, life-changing challenges facing you every day, and the importance of your presence and attention cannot be overestimated. Of course, it’s hard to find time for yourself amid the long list of demands, but it is worth the effort because taking care of yourself benefits everyone. It makes facing those daunting challenges seem possible, and it gives you the capacity to face them with love and patience.
Hold onto the possibility that there are strategies that can help. Find the ideas that resonate for you – the most appealing or the easiest to initiate – and give one a try. Notice how you feel and look for small ways to integrate it into your life. Remember, keep the bar low and claim success for anything positive. And, give yourself permission to step away if life gets bumpy, and then make your way back again as you’re ready.
Your instincts inspired you to be a loving caregiver. Make space to listen to those instincts and shine them on caring for yourself too.
Caryn Anthony is a nonprofit consultant and executive coach from Silver Spring, MD, and is also a volunteer member of the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Children’s National Medical System. She is the author of “Any Way the Wind Blows,”—a blog geared for families raising a child with a significant medical condition. Her writing has also appeared in The Huffington Post, Grown and Flown, and Modern Loss.