The other day I was supposed to meet a dear old friend. The last few times we had plans, she canceled last minute because her mother, now 86, needed something. I understood, of course. This time she didn’t cancel, but she did tell me we’d have to meet for breakfast and it would have to be a quick one because it was her weekend to have her mother at the house and she didn’t want to leave her alone for long. This time, I opened my mouth.
“It seems like you have put your life on hold a lot lately, and your siblings don’t seem to do that. When do you get to have a life?” I must have struck a chord because she burst into tears.
“There just isn’t time for me,” she said.
With a growing number of people living longer and more adult children caring for them, this has become an issue of epic proportion. For those who have assumed the major responsibility of caretaking for an elderly parent (or two), their overwhelming needs can become a full-time job. Women especially fall prey to the feeling that they must take care of those around them before tending to their own needs (though more and more men are also facing this dilemma).
The analogy I like to use—whether in relation to a child, partner, or dependent elder—is the following: when you are flying on a plane, they tell parents to put their oxygen masks on first, and afterward to put on their child’s. The idea being that, when we first take care of ourselves, we can be better caretakers—not negligent, as we may often feel ourselves to be. Sometimes we are so busy “giving” that we don’t even realize we’ve got nothing left to give!
So, what are some basic guidelines for self-care when you are a caretaker?
- Recognize that the more you give, the more you are expected to give. I observe this phenomenon in all aspects of daily life: the person who takes on the lion’s share will be expected to do more and more, while the absentee parties will be not only exempted from expectations, but often excused with understanding for their lack of participation. To combat this, maintain healthy boundaries. This means sometimes saying “no” to taking a loved one to an appointment and “forcing” them to call a less active sibling or friend who they never want to “bother” (though of course they think nothing of “bothering” you!). It also means scheduling your own activities and sometimes expecting that person to work around your schedule. This isn’t mean; it’s establishing that you have a life and your time and energy need to be honored and valued.
- Dependence creates dependence. Encourage your loved one to be engaged in something he or she enjoys. Ideally it would be great to have at least one activity outside the home (community transportation is often available, so you don’t necessarily have to drive). The person can join a community center, take a class, spend time at another sibling’s house for the weekend, etc. This not only frees up your time, but also helps foster your loved one’s independence and happiness, which makes for a much more harmonious interaction with you.
- Keep in mind that this person may live for a long time and you can’t put your life on hold forever. I have a friend who has been retired since age 62 and has postponed her plan to relocate until her mother passes away. She never dreamed her mother would live so long (she’s now 96!), and now she regrets not having relocated herself and her mother years ago. I’m not suggesting you dump your parent so you can go out partying, but rather that you figure in your own needs as much as his or hers as you plan for the long term as well as the minutiae of daily life.
- Get help! Don’t take on everything yourself. I often hear about parents who want only their adult child (usually a female) to deal with their daily needs. But sometimes it is too much. Get a helper, companion, home aide, or something to spread the care around. Many elderly (and chronically ill people) who are fortunate enough to live in their own homes or their children’s can take for granted what goes into this process. You can also find many useful websites and organizations that can support you in being a caretaker. A support group can be a wonderful addition to your self-care routine.
Many, many people are caring for elderly parents, whether in their own homes or supporting them so they can stay in their homes. Know that you are not alone, and that this can be both a wonderful, enriching experience as well as a deeply challenging one. The more you take care of yourself, the more rewarding—and less depleting—it will be.
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