So I have been a nurse for 16 years next month. I have been an RN for 10 of those years, primarily working in home hospice. I have given more lectures than I care to recall to caregivers encouraging them to allow others to help. Help with anything! Accept a meal. Let someone come and sit with your loved one for a few hours so you can take a walk or get coffee. Let your friends clean your house for you. I could go on and on. I was giving this advice from a place of love, but also from a place of understanding what happens, statistically, to caregivers when they do not practice self care.
For those unpaid caregivers we know they are at greater risk of high blood pressure, compromised immune systems, higher rates of depression and/or anxiety, and an increased risk of early death. That is because the responsibility of caring for a loved one is very stressful and physically and emotionally demanding. Due to the time and attention our loved one needs, we often disregard or ignore our own health and well-being, which can have disastrous consequences.
You don’t have to be a certified mechanic to know that if you drive a car, without regular maintenance like oil changes, you are decreasing the life of that automobile. The same is true of your own health and well-being, however if YOU give out, it’s not just like your family can run down to the local dealership and replace you.
With the thousands of families and caregivers I have worked with, I could never understand why it was so difficult for them to take my advice…until I became a caregiver to my own husband after an unexpected health crisis that left him permanently disabled. Now I am coming up on seven years of caregiving and I am just now learning how to ask for help myself. The SHAME! Talk about eating your words!
Here are the things I have learned on my own journey that I hope might shed some light on your own situation, giving you the perspective you need to allow others to help you in your journey.
- Just because someone doesn’t do things exactly the way I do doesn’t mean they are doing it wrong. Often when faced with a situation where we are caring for a loved one, we are jolted into our new role unexpectedly. This often leads to feeling a lack of control over our lives, which in turn, keeps us in a place of wanting to control anything we can.
- We feel insecure about ourselves as caregivers when we ask for help. I can’t tell you how many times I worried about what my family and friends would think if I ever admitted to being overwhelmed or feeling like I was struggling. Would they think I was being selfish? Would they think I was a horrible wife? Would they question my abilities to care for my husband and juggle all my other responsibilities?
- Some of us are just not good at asking for help. So I have learned that folks in my generation, “GenX” were the first to be left to our own devices as children and that has made us pretty self sufficient, but also lousy at asking for help. We have always learned to just figure things out, not talk about our feelings, and basically “suck it up”. While I happen to think we were a pretty cool generation with a lot of good qualities, I also think this has led to a lot of unnecessary struggle and trauma as well. It’s something I have become acutely aware of and work on daily.
- We think the healthcare system is going to help us if they identify a need. This has never been the case as long as I have worked in healthcare and is even less true now that we are going on year two of the pandemic. You need to be an advocate for your loved one, but also for yourself. Do not wait for the government or the healthcare system to come and help you. You must seek help for yourself.
- We put things off until we “have time” and things “settle down”. If you have been a caregiver for more than a day, you know this is not going to happen. There will always be something to take your time and attention and the to do list will never stop growing. So you have to make the time.
While learning all of these things have been tough lessons for me personally, they have made me a better healthcare provider and helped me to discover the pitfalls of being a caregiver, so that I am better able to provide solid solutions for problems people may face in their journey. Let the little things go. People who love you want nothing more than to help. Being a martyr is not a badge of honor. You are in charge of your own health, happiness and life. Make time for wellness so you don’t have your time stolen due to illness down the road.