Without doubt, human beings become aware of the concept of ‘death’ fairly early in childhood – unless adult family members choose to shield them from what they feel is a harsh reality. Still, kids are curious, and usually find dead things fascinating. They may be ill-equipped to understand death’s implications, but they learn what it looks like while still fairly young. It could be a dead bird lying in the front yard, killed when hitting a window; or the body of a neighbor’s dog or cat, killed when attempting to cross the street.
Knowing about the existence of death, we continue through our day-to-day lives. We may not be comfortable with death, but we get pretty darned good at ignoring its constant presence. Then, one earthshaking day, you’re forced to look directly at it. Often, it’s due to a terminal the medical diagnosis of a loved one. Nothing is ever the same after that moment; and death becomes a silent companion during the long days and nights of caregiving. And its presence can affect you in unexpected ways. Let’s talk about that; and how you can develop self-care practices to help get you through.
As in anything labeled a “practice,” such as meditation or yoga, you must be consistent in your self-care practices. In an ideal world, it would a daily routine; unfortunately, caregiving can become far from routine or predictable. It’s at this time, of course, your well-being truly depends on such a self-care practice most. With that said…let’s move on.
Self-Care for Caregivers
What do you think of as self-care? Often the phrase is misunderstood; taken to mean self-indulgence (spa days, that sort of thing). If asked, Google will tell you self-care is a habit “of taking action to preserve or improve one’s own health and protect one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.” While a spa day may be one of the actions taken, self-care for caregivers is more about protecting one’s well-being by taking the following actions and becoming a student again. Learn everything you can about your loved one’s condition. Ask the physicians involved what changes to expect in the months ahead. This is a time when ‘the more you know, the better off you are.’
Also, take some time to examine your feelings about death and dying. Our culture doesn’t put much attention on either; and now that you’re caregiver for someone who is very ill, death can loom in the not-too-distant future. To some degree, get comfortable with it.
- Use all the resources available to you. That includes family, friends, neighbors; your church congregation, and local agencies. This is a critical feature of a self-care practice for caregivers; don’t ‘go it alone.’ Check with the National Caregivers Alliance , the American Society on Aging, and Rosalyn Carter’s Institute for Caregiving for insight into what’s available. Contact your local agency on aging; and don’t forget to bring in your local hospice organization when it’s appropriate.
- See your doctor regularly. I’ll be the first to tell you; it doesn’t take long to be weary of doctor visits. As a caregiver it’s all too easy to ignore your health – who wants another doctor’s appointment on an already overcrowded calendar? Do it anyway. And don’t forget to eat the right foods, curb your intake of alcohol, and (while you’re at it) develop an exercise routine.
- Carve out quiet time. Whenever you can, relax in your favorite way. I listen to audiobooks and garden when the weather’s nice enough. Remember what it is that nourishes your spirit and regularly make time to do it.
- Spend time with friends. This may sound like the previous action step (‘relax’). But it’s not. Friends bring something special to our lives. “A friend is what the heart needs all the time,” said American poet, Henry Van Dyke; and certainly he’s right. Now; I present the sixth and final aspect of a self-care practice for caregivers –and I saved the best for last.
- Learn to forgive yourself. When I say this is the ‘best’ of the six action steps, I mean it’s the most far-reaching. It’s also the hardest step of the six; in truth, learning to forgive yourself can take a lifetime. It’s so worth the effort – and there are hundreds of online articles to guide you. It also may help you to join a support group or to see a counselor. Seeing yourself mirrored in the eyes of others who truly understand what you’re going through can teach you some valuable lessons about who you really are. (We’re pretty hard on ourselves, you know.)
Why Self-Care is Important for Caregivers
I learned this lesson the hard way. As the old song says, I can see clearly now; but at the time I was blind to what was happening to me over the two and a half years of his illness. By the time he died, I was a physical and emotional wreck. And it took a good year and a half to get myself back on track. (Read: “Anticipatory Grief: One Woman’s Story” for more.)
In the back of my mind I hear my mom, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” My heart-felt advice to you is to follow her admonition – don’t neglect your well-being; without it, you can’t do the task you’ve taken on (at least not very well). One more tip before I go. Because some folks don’t like to cry – or should I say they don’t feel the need to cry very often; it’s hard to recommend they incorporate regular crying sessions into their self-care routine. But I’ll tell you, it’s a true tension reliever!