Sleeping through the night and waking up when you damn well please.
Sleeping through the night and waking up when you damn well please.
You can take the girl out of caregiving, but you can’t take caregiving out of the girl. Right now, there are nine different herbs planted in pots on my back porch. They have names like Rosy, Cilia, and Dilly – all decidedly female, even Reggie One and Reggie Two, the oreganos. I talk to these gal pals throughout the day, giving them reassuring little leaf rubs, keeping them hydrated, looking out for leaf blight, and offering lots of reassurance. This, of course, could be considered either crazy or endearing, depending on whether you embrace a bit of woo-woo in your life. The thing is, they look like they’re smiling, and that delights me. This, coming from the person who, years ago, told new plants, “I hope you stick around, but there are plenty more where you came from.”
Digging deeper, I’m figuring out this goodness stems from being open to embracing new ideas and practices that inspire and sustain me. Exactly what I want for YOU, beginning with this essential truth. Whether currently a caregiver or a perennial – you, me, and the thriving plants on my deck have something in common. Like them, we can grow. We can bloom. We can flourish. What it takes is our encouragement, our attention, and our kindness to each other.
What or who inspires you?
Is there a creative activity you’d like to try out, or get back into?
What is your favorite thing to do when you have a little time?
(If it’s “sleep,” I suspect you’re in caregiver mode.)
A giving heart
A very large purse
Strength you didn’t know you had
Enough humor to get you through tough times
Headlights and Dramamine for this roller coaster ride in the dark
Compassion – not just for others, but for yourself
Confidence that you’re doing your best in situations where no easy answer exists
A nickel for every time you have to keep your mouth shut to keep the peace
A belief that you will be ok, no matter what
What would you add?!?
For most of us, being a caregiver is more like running a marathon than a sprint, and few things can dehydrate you faster than the relentless demands that come with this role. I’m not just talking physically, but emotionally and spiritually, as well. Those oft-ignored symptoms of headaches, fatigue, dizziness, confusion or anger can all be signs that our bodies and minds are depleted and out of whack.
So, even though we may not be able to mute the cell phone, hand our duties over to someone else, or get away for a two-week vacation, there are small ways to replenish that don’t take a large investment of time, or even money.
One caregiving friend I know takes walks with her beloved dog a few times a day. Hard to say who enjoys those breaks more. Animals are always in the moment, and they can teach us to do the same. Own a feline, instead? I can’t be the only person who’s gone into a trance while stroking my cat’s pointy little face. Research shows that petting a beloved fur baby can release a spray of endorphins that make you feel more calm and peaceful.
The benefits of music have been scientifically documented. It can reduce stress, relieve pain, and help insomnia. When traveling back and forth between Tampa and Orlando to visit my folks, I found that singing along with Barbra Streisand tunes always calmed me down. Would that I had Bab’s voice instead of her nose.
Art saves. Whether it’s a coloring book for grown-ups or a half hour of scrapbooking or knitting, focusing on a creative act gives your right brain a needed boost. It’s also the perfect escape from the barrage of information and decisions that a caregiver’s left brain must deal with every day.
Pay attention to the natural world around you. Listen to the birds chirping away. Notice the plants that are throwing out shoots or flowers. Admire the tenacity of the sugar ants still marching across the kitchen counter, despite all your extermination efforts. Oops! Meant to delete that.
Practice gratitude. Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say is “Thank you.” that will be enough.” When caregiving, my gratitude stemmed most often from things like a good cup of coffee, 10 minutes of quiet, and freshly laundered bed sheets. Oh, yeah, and a sense of humor that allowed me to laugh when life was at its most absurd.
Make a lunch or coffee date with a friend. Someplace close so you don’t feel stressed about stepping away from your caregiving load. One thing I realized is that each friend offered a different kind of support. Some were listeners, some were doers, and others were just great huggers.
Dig in the dirt. It’s ironic coming from me, the person who can kill a plastic plant. Seriously, though, even if you’re not a gardener, there‘s something satisfying about squishing your fingers in rich loamy soil, and repotting a droopy plant or growing a few herbs outside your kitchen door. My choice is always cactus, since they thrive on benign neglect.
Chop wood. Carry water. My interpretation of this Zen expression is that familiar tasks can actually be a comfort in the midst of all the “life changes on a dime” moments that caregiving can bring. The simple act of making mom’s meatloaf recipe for dinner, or helping your child with a homework lesson can ground you in the every day sacred. And yes, it goes without saying that some tasks are more sacred than others…
And finally, it’s ok to have a good cry. Studies show that crying can cleanse our minds as well as our bodies; releasing bottled up stress hormones that can cause all sorts of negative effects. Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough of that during the years spent caring for my parents. Instead, I drowned my sorrows in cheese and crackers. Trust me, crying is definitely better for your health and your waistline.
As caregivers, going the distance requires staying hydrated in all its forms. It keeps us from hitting the wall or at least from hitting it quite so hard. The rewards of being there for someone you love can be great, but let’s be honest – sometimes “surviving” is the real prize.
Photo from gratisography.com
Not being a rainbow and pink unicorn kind of gal, I have to applaud the honesty of Ann Brenoff’s recent piece on HuffPost entitled, “No, Caregiving is Not Rewarding. It Simply Sucks.” There isn’t a caregiver alive who can’t identify with that kind of bone-deep exhaustion, anger, and frustration.
Let’s face it, if given a choice, we’d rather the people we love remain healthy and vital forever, making this role unnecessary. But, that’s not how it happens, which brings me to the point of writing this piece.
As a family caregiver and working daughter, juggling the demands of a father with dementia and a mother with breast cancer and heart disease, there were often days I questioned my sanity, and ability to keep on. I fantasized about getting my real life back, then instantly felt guilty knowing what that would mean. I was doing too much. I wasn’t doing enough. Compassion fatigue, fractured family dynamics, and issues with paid caregivers often stressed me to the max, and every ring of my cell phone triggered a fight or flight response.
Yeah, a lot of it did suck, but there were also moments of clarity, purpose, and deep connection that might never have happened without the accompanying angst.
This is what I know, for sure.
1. I believe in kindness, but don’t mess with me when my parent’s well-being is at stake.
2. Digesting large amounts of medical information quickly? No problem. Hospital food? That’s another story.
3. Forgive the woo-woo, but part of my purpose for being here was to care for my folks.
4. Not really a crier, the kindness of a stranger can still disarm me, every time.
5. After six years as my parent’s healthcare advocate, there isn’t much that intimidates me.
6. At the end, our deepest conversations can have little to do with words.
7. Just being with my folks was sometimes more important than doing for them.
8. Whether giving or receiving care, we all have a deep need to be understood and appreciated.
9. Laughter and tears can both be ways of dealing with loss.
10. You can ultimately see caregiving as a gift, and still want to return it now and then.
Now you know mine. How about sharing a few of your own caregiving truths.
And by the way, the bird’s nest in this post is a treasured batik, created by my mom, Sally, many years ago.
Are you secretly giving yourself a grade for caregiving? Feel you’re falling short? Don’t be ashamed to say so, because I get it. Growing up in my house, a grade of “C” was equivalent to an “F,” and at dinner each night, my younger siblings and I had to come up with good answers to my father’s perpetual question, “What did you do of any consequence today?”
Decades later, while caring for both my parents during the last phase of their lives, and still putting myself to Dad’s test, these are the responses I finally arrived at.
Perfect solutions don’t exist when caregiving, and what may work one day, may not work a day, a week, or a month later. Even knowing this, we often drive ourselves to exhaustion processing tons of information, and absorbing solicited and un-solicited advice while trying to honor the hopes and expectations of the parent we’re caring for. It’s inevitable that sometimes “analysis paralysis” sets in. This happens when we worry about not having all the facts, are concerned the decision may be the wrong one, or have convinced ourselves that the worst possible scenario is going to occur. What can help is learning to stop second-guessing our decisions; remembering we can only work with what we know at any given time, and making peace with the idea of “acceptable for now.”
Caregiving is a verb, and our days run on multiple To Do lists – dealing with a deeply flawed medical system, particularly where the elderly are concerned; ordering and picking up medical supplies and prescriptions; filling out insurance forms; and responding to crises we’d rarely imagined. It’s never-ending, yet caregivers often feel they should be doing more. Once in awhile, try making an “Accomplishment” list, instead. Write down all the things you manage to handle while taking care of a parent/ a spouse/ a child/ a full time job/ a home/your own needs, or any combination thereof. Even you will shake your head in disbelief at what you’re achieving under great odds.
Try not to compare your caregiving experience with others. I was speaking with someone who’d been taking care of a father with dementia for over 10 years. When I commented on how hard that must be for her, she said, almost apologetically, that her dad was in a memory care unit, so she wasn’t a twenty-four hour caregiver. The reality is that caregiving is a 24/7 job whether your parent is with you or not. You’re still the one being called at all hours when issues arise and difficult decisions must be made, so don’t ever devalue your efforts.
Often, the toughest part of caregiving is recognizing that you can’t always make things better for Mom or Dad despite your love and efforts. And sometimes, being with a parent is more important than doing for them.
Finally, forgive yourself for being irritable, resentful and sometimes wishing your caregiving responsibilities were over. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you human. The irony is that accepting this fact can release some of the unrealistic expectations and pressure we put on ourselves to try and fix everything that goes wrong.
So, for those of you who still feel the need to grade yourselves, I’ve devised a new system with caregivers in mind.
A – Accomplished
B – Big-hearted
C – Compassionate
D – Dedicated
F – Fabulous
Now – go ahead and give yourself the “F” you deserve.