This post is from Cindy Laverty of The Care Company.
The promise of a New Year is one that most of us look forward to, not because anything is really so different, but because it symbolizes the beginning of something new. (The truth is that every day brings something new, but we forget this when we get into our daily groove.) For family caregivers, the New Year brings an opportunity to change what isn’t working; to make a decision to do some things differently; to reach out and stop going it alone; or ultimately, to spend some time focusing on bringing balance back to your life.
It’s difficult for caregivers to switch into “me” mode. Why is this?
Caregivers are constantly being told that they need to find time for themselves, whether that be looking for respite care, taking their loved ones to an adult day center, or just scheduling 30 minutes a day for personal care.
But, when you’re used to taking care of someone else, finding the time to relax is often easier than actually being able to relax. I experienced this dilemma first-hand when I became the primary caregiver for my ex in-laws. I was so consumed with the need to remain in control and take care of everything in their lives; that I neglected to take care of myself in the beginning stages of my caregiving journey. This led to a brush with extreme caregiver burnout and a resolve to re-think my approach to caregiving.
So what is it that keeps family caregivers on the hamster wheel vs. taking some personal time to relax?
- “I need to be in charge of everything that has to do with my loved one’s care.” Caregivers often find it difficult to let go of their caregiving mindset—even when their mind and body are screaming at them to take a break. You can’t be in charge of everything. People take on the role of caregiver thinking that they can do everything, but, today’s world, the caregiving role can last for years, even decades. And if it does last for years, you simply will not be able to do it all.
- “I can’t stop worrying that something will go wrong if I’m not there.” Some caregivers, when offered the opportunity to take a breather, find that they can’t stop their minds from running through dozens of “What if…?” scenarios. What if my father falls and the respite caregiver can’t pick him up? What if my mother has an episode while I’m gone? These are the kinds of thoughts make a caregiver incapable of relaxing, even when they’re away from the person they’re caring for.
- “I shouldn’t be enjoying myself while my loved one needs care.” When I first started out as a caregiver, I was put in the position of being “on call” all of the time, despite the fact that I had access to additional caregivers who were able to help. But I always felt guilty when I wasn’t present. Guilt can make a caregiver feel as though they’re being selfish by taking some time for themselves. A guilt-ridden caregiver who does decide to take some time away may find herself so consumed by regret that it’s impossible to relax.
Follow these tips to help cope with your thoughts, and learn how to let go:
- Make the decision that your life matters. If you’re consumed caring for a loved one, chances are that you might be notoriously poor when it comes to taking care of you. The only way to get rid of the obsessive, “on call,” mentality is to decide that you matter just as much as your loved one . It won’t be easy, but deciding that you, the caregiver, deserve to have peace, tranquility, and calm, is the first step towards being able to make the most of your time away from your loved one. No one is going to do caregiving the way you do, and that’s ok, as long as your care recipient is being properly cared for.
- Ask for help, more than once. A common caregiver lament is that help is not available. When caregivers tell me that their family/friends refuse to help, I always ask when was the last time you asked for help? It’s true that people may not be able to shoulder a significant portion of the caregiving responsibilities, but an important part of asking for help is accepting how your friends and family show up. For example, your sister may not be able to help you with the day-to-day care of your mother, but she might be able to cook a week’s worth of meals for you. This is how she is showing up to help you and your mother. If you demonstrate your appreciation for the assistance that others give, no matter how seemingly insignificant, it might make them more likely to seek other ways to help you in the future.
- Decide to really be “gone.” Being “gone” means that, barring an emergency, you completely remove yourself from the situation of being at your loved one’s beck and call. Making the decision to relax and truly be gone may be even more difficult for you than agreeing that you matter as much as your loved one does. The trickiness of this endeavor is the fact that a caregiver’s mind is constantly in “fix-it” mode. When you’re taking care of an elderly loved one, it can be hard to accept that you often can’t “fix” what’s wrong. What you can do is help make them happier, healthier, and more comfortable. When you stop trying to fix everything, it gets so much easier to relax.
- When you have the time, do something you enjoy. The key to successful relaxation is doing things that bring joy back into your life. It’s different for everyone. For some it might be taking a hike with a good friend. For others, it could be getting a manicure, or a massage. Maybe it’s as simple as taking a nap. When you’re engaging in joyful activities for yourself, it’s hard to stay stuck in the ‘What if’s’.
Learning how to let go and unwind will likely be a difficult process. Being alone with your thoughts may not be a pleasant experience, at first. Ugly, scary emotions are likely to surface, but they have to in order to find peace. If these feelings surface you might try journaling, meditation or professional if you are really struggling to find some balance and manage your emotions.
Ultimately, true relaxation is about discovering how to connect with (and love), yourself—warts and all. You need to learn how to be easier on yourself. You don’t have to be perfect.
If you find that your caregiver guilt is provoked by this notion, ask yourself this question: Why are you more into caregiving than you are into having joy, peace, and serenity?
It’s a New Year and a new opportunity to reevaluate your caregiving role. What will you do differently this year?
Cindy Laverty is a Caregiver Coach who specializes in helping families and individuals put systems and strategies in place to make the caregiving journey less stressful and more rewarding . She is affectionately called, “The Fairy Godmother of Caregiving,” and Cindy transforms caregivers’ lives through her on line programs. She is the Founder of The Care Company, an Internet-based company dedicated to help caregivers get the answers they need. You can find Cindy at www.thecareco.com.