Here are five ways to cope when life feels like it’s always about someone else. If you are an attentive, involved caregiver you know how difficult it can be to prioritize yourself. There’s often no time and energy remaining once you’ve taken care of feeding, bathing, dressing, medications, recreation, transportation and cleaning required to provide for an ill or disabled relative. On top of that, you may be responsible for paying bills and taking care of other children. You may also have a job.
I feel overwhelmed just typing that list. And I feel tired this morning in spite of 9 hours of sleep. Yesterday, I kept my medically fragile granddaughter who had been throwing up everything, including meds, for two days. It is a draining experience. And that’s the reason I offered to keep her. Her parents and brother needed a break!
For those of you who have never been a caregiver, it’s easy to assume that being organized, prepared, and energetic will be sufficient to handle the job without undue strain. It helps. Having sufficient financial resources along with family and social support lessen the impact. But until you’ve done the job, there’s no way to understand the toll it can take.
Data say a large majority of caregivers report adverse effects to daily routines of sleep, eating, and exercise. They also report a significant negative impact on social and recreational life. A majority also report often neglecting their own health during caregiving. Even if you view caregiving as rewarding, this eventually affects your quality of life.
I recently ran into a nurse who works in the hospital unit my granddaughter frequents. She told me how much she LOVES my family. She’s so impressed that my son & daughter-in-law still have jobs and lives. She said that most parents with similar children quit their jobs.
Of course that’s an anecdotal assessment, but it’s telling. At a certain level, caregiving can require you to limit your hours, change the level of job you hold, or stop working altogether. That not only affects income, it can lessen your social connections.
Nurture Supportive Friendships
When I look back at the years I owned my previous business, I see lots of inclusion in birthday drinks, holiday parties, family weddings, and funeral visitations. I also see how much effort I put into maintaining the connections that led to that inclusion. Once I had less time to “market” myself, many of those invitations ceased.
The following year when circumstances demanded I begin caregiving, an additional level of friends fell away. Now, I have a core group of friends who understand that I must often say no. They don’t take it personally. They endure my initial nonstop talking the days I haven’t spoken to anyone besides children in weeks. They are patient when nothing seems funny to me.
I am grateful for these friends. I’ve known most of them for more than 15 years. Some I’ve known for 30. If I had not already had an established set of friends, it would have taken a great deal of deliberate effort to cultivate them once caregiving began.
Allow Yourself to Receive
One of the best ways to cope when all of the focus in your household is on someone else, is to allow yourself to receive. Of course, that requires someone to give. It is often friends who are willing to lend a hand with cooking, shopping, or other errand running. Don’t hesitate to ask or to say yes when they offer.
If offers of help aren’t sincere, you’ll learn that quickly. You’ll also learn that many are. I recently had a friend research the availability of Quick Dams online while I wet vacuumed water from my flooding office building. That was one less task I had to do that night.
Hire a Service
When friends run shorter than finances, a service can help with care. After my mother suffered a stroke and no longer met the criteria for rehab, my stepfather took her home. He had been very impatient with the staff at rehab and frequently let them (and us) know that believed he could do a better job of caring for her, keeping her bed clean, and getting her to eat than they had.
My sister and I arrived at the end of her first week home. One look and it was clear that NewDaddy could not handle another day without assistance. He had grossly underestimated the care required to deal with her impairment.My sister and I lived hours away, so I hired a service that would do household chores, dispense meds, and eventually provide hospice care.
The emotional drain of caregiving can be exhausting. The roller coaster of hospitalization, code blue, ventilator, return to baseline, stable period, minor illness, rapid decline, and hospitalization in the medically fragile is traumatic for both patient and family. It becomes difficult to relax and renew between medical events because the natural reflex is to remain braced for the next escalation. Often the stable period does not last long enough to process through the most recent past trauma making the effects cumulative.
Make Time for Grieving
With dementia, stroke, traumatic brain injury, down syndrome or cerebral palsy comes a sense of loss that must be grieved. Grief requires stillness which requires time away from tasks including those of self-care like cooking. Unfortunately, church groups, civic clubs, book clubs, and informal groups of friends who happily provide meals and household support when someone dies do not recognize the prolonged grief of slow decline with the same kind of assistance.
Healthy caregivers may set good boundaries, make sure to add an hour of sleep or a nap, eat well, and continue to work out and still end up hitting the wall. It happened to me in 2018 and it came as a shock. I have always been able to work long and hard and still find the energy to play. I had no idea how much energy it takes process grief and trauma.
When you begin to notice life is never about you, it may feel selfish to sleep an additional two hours per night. It can also make you feel old, unfun, and unattractive. But catching up may not be a matter of sleeping-in one weekend. It can take months of added sleep to get ahead when you’re a caregiver.
Change What You Can
I now begin to say no much sooner–before I get too tired. I pay more attention to subtle body signals. And I work less. Since I am my own boss, my work schedule is something I can change.
While maintaining connections is important, I no longer choose to give my time to people who make things more difficult. I feel much less distress over the relationship shifts this causes than I do accommodating friends and relatives who regularly create interactions that are convoluted, vague, chaotic, argumentative, unnecessarily complicated, manipulative, inconsiderate or filled with turmoil. Any offer of “help” from these parties is not helpful and therefore declined. Ditto for those who have proven repeatedly unreliable.
Finding the time, resources, and energy to plan an actual vacation has been difficult the past couple of years. I’ve made plenty of trips, but they haven’t exactly included recreation and relaxation. I can reframe how I view days off and vacations and I can certainly give up feeling bad about relaxing when my to-do list remains long.
The Sum Total is Self-Kindness
Big change begins with small changes. When you deliberately practice self-kindness it eventually becomes habit. And practicing self-kindness is really the best way I can think of to cope with any difficulty in life!