Are you one of legions of women struggling to balance the care-giving needs of a loved one with self-care and your own health and well-being? If so, you’re not alone. To balance on this precipice is a major life challenge.
Over a recent lunch, I talked with a good friend who has become the primary caregiver of her husband with unexpected serious health issues.
We assume most care-giving would be for aging parents, but the reality is care-giving for spouses and other family members is not uncommon.
Without complaining, but very candid, my friend admitted how she’s been struggling with the effects care-giving is having on her, as well as difficulty finding the best resources. Each situation has its own unique challenges, but the physical and emotional toll it takes is not unique. In medical circles, this is often referred to as “caregiver syndrome”.
Rewards and Risks to the Caregiver
When we honor a commitment to someone we love, we experience emotional rewards, including the good feelings we get when we perform loving, unselfish acts. We also pick up some personal lessons from the experience.
But, care-giving can take a heavy toll on the life of the caregiver, often the caregiver suffers a significant decline in their own health over time.
Selfish vs. Self-Care
Most women struggle to recognize the difference between being selfish and good self-care, after receiving mixed messages over our lifetime, and putting the needs of others above our own. I remember vividly a conversation in my mid-twenties with my mom. I told her I was planning to get my first massage to do something nice for myself.
She accused me of being “selfish”.
Looking back, I realized it was not selfish at all; rather it was good self-care, something my mom did not do well at that time. Fortunately, later in her life, mom made herself a top priority, took much better care of herself, and was healthier and happier. I think most women in her generation did not make self-care a priority. Balancing the needs of others with our own isn’t easy, but it’s essential to get through the many challenges we face in our life.
Self-Care Assessment: 5 Questions
1. Do you feel selfish putting your needs first?
2. Do you feel overwhelmed and not even sure of your own needs?
3. Do you have trouble asking for what you need or want? Do you even know what that means?
4. Do you feel guilty or inadequate, thinking “I should be able to do this” even if you do ask for help?
5. Are you experiencing three or more of the following:
- Loneliness and isolation from your old life, friends, and activities
- Exhaustion and sleep deprivation.
- Depression. (Studies indicate that 46-59 percent of caregivers are clinically depressed)
- Physical decline, including weight gain, muscle strains (back), increased blood pressure, lack of exercise and poor eating habits
- Increased use of alcohol, substances, or prescribed or illicit drugs
- Failure to make or keep your own medical appointments
- When ill, you don’t stay in bed or take care of yourself
- Increased stress, irritability, anger or frustration
- Feel stuck and unable to see choices or any alternatives to the present situation?
Care-Giving Essentials for Better Self Care (and prevent burnout)
1. Acknowledgement is the first step. If your answers indicated the need to take better care of yourself, you’ve already begun.
2. Make the decision that your self-care become a priority and schedule it. This is a long journey, requiring perspective about the situation and your own self-care. Your own medical appointments, massages, activities with friends, exercise, healthier food choices, and more quality sleep must be part of good self-care.
3. Identify things, big and small, you can control, create a plan and identify resources to address them. For a few ideas, read this recent blog post on self-care.
4. Speak up. Don’t let yourself become isolated, so share your concerns and situation with a trusted, supportive friend. When you begin to open up and speak about it, you’ve brought your situation to light and you’re not alone.
6. Ask for help and information. Recognize you cannot do it alone and help is available.To ask is not a weakness, it is a sign of wisdom. Ask for and accept support from family members, friends, community groups and resources, and medical providers. Here are just a few online resources for starters: The National Caregiving Alliance, Family Caregiving Alliance, and AARP.
The work of a caregiver is one of the most difficult tasks in life. If you are a caregiver, it is essential you arm yourself with self-awareness, a healthy dose of good self-care and a support team. When you do, caregiving can be one of life’s greatest gifts.
Your turn: What is one thing you’ll do this week to take care of yourself? Be bold!