My car, buffeted by wind that had chilled to 30 below zero, plowed through yet-to-be-cleared streets. Mom had set off her personal alarm so the dispatcher called me as planned. It had been one of those days. I’d just returned home from the nearby nursing facility after trying to calm my dad, who was experiencing a major anxiety episode due to his dementia.
No rest for the caregiver. I climbed back in the car and fought my way through the streets to Mom. It wasn’t another false alarm. Mom really had fallen, and as usually happens after a fall, I couldn’t get her up off the floor by myself. I had to call the EMTs — again. Thankfully, this time she wasn’t seriously hurt. Hours later, once I’d settled Mom in her bed, I forced my way back through the still unplowed streets toward home, hoping for a couple of hours of sleep before morning, when I had to take my uncle to his neurology appointment for a post-stroke checkup.
Still somewhat coherent during the drive, I tried to plan the coming day. I’d see Mom again in a few hours and then take my uncle to his appointment. The next stop would be at my mother-in-law’s condominium, where I would stock the groceries that I’d pick up for her sometime during the day and prepare her supper. Interwoven with the elders’ needs, I’d take my kids to school in some semblance of order and would be back at the school in time to pick them up. So I could start all over again.
Welcome to the world of people caring for multiple elders.
Many caregivers provide care for more than one person
The number of elders for whom I provided primary family care was in excess of average, but the people who have cared for a combination of parents, in-laws, and often a spouse, are legion. Much of this caregiving happens in tandem, so that, for example, after one parent passes the other parent falls apart. Thus, the adult child caregiver doesn’t even have time to properly grieve before thrown, once again, into caregiver mode.
Who are these caregivers forgetting?
Most caregivers tend to leap into caregiving because the need is there. They don’t stop and think: “Oh, I must plan my journey for the next year — or 10.” Dad has a heart attack. You’re there. Mother-in-law breaks her hip. You’re there. Your husband develops cancer. Of course, you’re there. Whether all of this happens at once, or one follows the other, you as a caregiver can easily forget that someone else needs care — you.
Caregivers absolutely must get over the idea that self-care is selfish — that we should come last on our to-do list because we’re healthy. The reason? Doing so long-term can mean that your own health will take such a beating that there will be no family member well enough to care for anybody.
Take the well-known example that in an airplane emergency you put on your own oxygen mask first, which is completely against instinct for many of us. However, think about it. You can’t take care of others if you, the primary caregiver, are incapacitated.
How do you find time for self-care?
I wish I could tell you that I was a shining example of self-care, but I can’t. I raced from elders, to kids, to household tasks, back to other elders — a never-ending cycle, seven days a week. I developed an autoimmune disease in the process, which could very likely have been triggered by stress. I also lived with chronic migraines, always — for me — made worse by stress. One thing these chronic diseases did for me was force me – yes truly force me – to start to practice self-care to the best of my ability.
Self-care looks different to everyone, but for me it was daily connection with my spiritual life, my own form of meditation, my own form of yoga, and reading. Reading for even a half-hour takes me into another world and rests my mind so that I can then get on with real life. Your way may be running or jogging, socializing with friends, dancing, or your own type of meditation. What you do doesn’t matter as long as you do it for you.
It goes without saying that we all are healthier with some exercise and proper nutrition. Support from other caregivers in the form of formal or informal groups online and/or in person can be literal lifesavers, as well.
These are all things that you do for you. However, taking care of yourself will make you a far better caregiver so your care receivers will benefit immensely. You may find that your loved ones complain if you aren’t available to them 24/7, but when you are rested enough that you can give them your full attention and a warm smile rather than a stressed voice and frown, they will feel less of a burden. This helps everyone.
Being a caregiver for anyone is a big responsibility. Being a caregiver for multiple people is huge. Doing one or both of these long-term can literally be a killer for the caregiver. You must find a balance to survive this journey.