Self-care as a caregiver should be your No.1 priority. No, not No.2! Marc Lawrence explains why being “selfish” sometimes can make him (and you) a better family caregiver.
If you’ve been a caregiver for more than a couple of years, you may have noticed the toll that caregiving can take on your body and mind. When dealing with long-term chronic conditions, caregiving often doesn't get easier. In fact, you and the person you're caring for are likely fighting a battle against time.
We all age, and as we age, more effort is required to keep ourselves fit and our minds fresh. As caregivers, we tend to prioritise our patients/loved ones, often neglecting ourselves.
Aside from the obvious things such as exercising, eating healthy foods, getting enough sleep, etc., we can do a few other simple things to help reduce the strain on our bodies and minds.
Change your mindset
When I started caring for my wife, I remember regularly feeling as though her doctors, nurses, and therapists didn’t care about me. Everything was about her, and rarely would anyone ask about my well-being.
It all came to a head when a visiting nurse ignored that I was very ill with a bronchial infection. That's when I realised that my well-being mattered as much – if not more – than my wife’s since she'd be helpless without me.
If you think this sounds selfish, then you'd be right because it is! While I’m not suggesting that you should always put your own needs above those of the person you care for, it's important to look after yourself first and foremost. This will go a long way if you want to change your behaviour.
The next step is to become more assertive in reaching out for help.
Use assistive devices to help you
When my wife first came home from the hospital, an occupational therapist came to our house and recommended what could be done to better accommodate my wife.
I did my best to use the suggestions by adding grab bars, widening doorways, removing rugs, adding a stair lift, and more.
After about six months, I realised that while the modifications were useful, they didn't consider my needs.
For example, the standard placements of grab bars in the bath/shower are good for the person in the tub but not always in the best position for the person trying to give the bath.
I've since added extra bars to help me maintain my balance when transferring and showering my wife. I’ve also added rubber-backed rugs to make it easier to hold my footing.
Although my goal is to help my wife be more independent, I’m always looking for devices that will remove some of my burdens, too (a robot that will feed her would be great!).
Make time for YOU
Finding time for yourself is the hardest thing about being a caregiver. I've given up most of the activities I did before my wife's stroke, partly because I don’t have someone to cover for me if I'm not around and partly because of the cost of the activities.
More unsettling is the loss of personal time during the day. Between my wife, daughter, and dog, I'm busy all day long and rarely find time to be alone. Just finding time to write this article is a challenge.
Again, the answer is to be selfish. For example, after I get my wife to bed around 8 p.m., I spend some time with her and then get my daughter to bed around 10 p.m. Once she’s in bed, I consider the next 90 minutes or so to be my time.
My wife isn't happy that I stay up late as she wishes I'd return to bed, but I need that time to unwind. 90 minutes of quiet without any demands goes a long way to restoring me for the next day.
Plan for the long term
The world is a bit crazy right now, with health, environmental, political, societal, and financial issues bombarding us daily. If you're caring for a loved one, you'll likely be layering your personal issues on top of all this, making it difficult to focus on anything else except survival.
I see other caregivers who are focused on the present and potentially sacrificing their future… which is something I am trying not to do.
My goal is for my wife and me to retire comfortably and afford the care we require. To do that, I'm now minimising my use of expensive care services and maximising my personal involvement.
I've also started a long-term plan of finding a location for us to build an accessible house that will meet our retirement needs. This doesn't sound like a simple suggestion; believe me, it's not. But I've already noticed lessening pressure by having this long-term objective.
I can envision a day when we can both relax and spend time together, which makes me smile. Having this plan, which may take years to execute, shifts my focus from the day-to-day turmoil to a more pleasing vision of the future.
I believe there are stages in the development of a caregiver, and one of them is “enlightenment." This occurs when you break out of the everyday rut and reassert your own needs and well-being back into the equation. This shift in perspective will help you see that there is an end game and hope for the future.
I urge every caregiver to take a step back and actively seek this perspective. Ultimately, this will make things better now and in the long run.
NPS-IE-NP-00683 January 2023