“Self-care”, a term that returns 2,970,000,000 results on Google in just 0.60 seconds, and just in typing that search term adds more weight to my shoulders. Self-care for care partners is something we talk a lot about at Caregiven. A lot.
Decreasing the stress and overwhelm of care partners (our term for those individuals giving care) is a necessity, not simply for their own physical and mental health, but for those they are supporting. A lot of research has been shown that a confident care partner results in fewer trips to the emergency room for their loved one, less likelihood of a hospital stay and even delaying their move into a care facility.
But how do you achieve that reduction and stress without layering on another burden - reminding them to “take care of you”? Of course there are a number of different ways. Recently I learned that Kaiser offers the Calm App free to members which is pretty brilliant. I personally subscribed to Simple Habit which offers a number of meditations for care partners. Happily I paid my annual subscription fee and now feel guilty for not carving out as little as 5-minutes per day for “self-care”.
In fact, there are an overwhelming number of ways that care partners are reminded of the importance of self-care. What I needed, however, was the permission to take time to do whatever I wanted or needed to do in order to restore my energy (and sanity) so I could go about living the “care partner life”.
Yes, I’m an adult, not only that but when my Dad was dying I was a parent to two children under 10, further evidence of my status as an adult. But I still wanted the permission to have erratic feelings, watch mind-numbing cat videos, hide behind a work project, or have an entire week of “breakfast for dinner” because I just didn’t have it in me by 6 pm to address basic human needs, much less soak in a bubble bath in a room lit with fancy candles while I journaled over my emotions.
So as I think about the ways in which I hope future care partners look to self-care, I’d like to offer permission for the following acts of “self-care” that became my staples of survival:
Work - continue to work as long as you possibly can without guilt to your loved one for not being ever present or to your employer for not showing up every minute of every day. Crazy that the idea of working is “self-care” but for me, it was. I needed to have one place where I was competent, where I knew what was expected of me and that would be there in its confining consistency after my Dad died and I needed to continue to move forward with my life.
Don’t Do Everything - recently a friend shared with me that while a friend of his was caring for her parents (her unwell father and her mother suffering dementia) she became so sick herself that she needed hospitalization and then a duration in bed. While this is an extreme example of her body enforcing “self-care”, the result was that her daughter and sister were able to step-in, in her absence. No doubt that while she was abed the guilt of “burdening” others was heavier than a gravity blanket, but the reality is that her confinement opened the door for others to be more proactive care partners.
Escape - not necessarily physically, but mentally. An amazing mentor, Karen Law, once said that she felt guilty for playing a video game on her phone when her husband was being treated for his incurable brain cancer. How could she be playing Candy Crush when he was dying? In that moment she was escaping and that is a beautiful way of self-care. She shared with me that one goal she had for Caregiven is that we offer that permission to escape. Often we joke about offering cat videos as a distraction from reality knowing that just the insanity of this can be effective at releasing some of the stress and by incorporating it into our product, users have the permission they need to both escape and not feel guilt.
Feel and Be Real - and again, don’t feel guilty about it. Perhaps guilt is a theme just to me, but it took my Dad dying and me getting to a point where I could no longer pretend that wasn’t true for me to get over feeling I had to be “immune to feeling” and required to sugar-coat reality. I remember quite clearly the moment, sitting around a dinner table with some well-intentioned family and one of my little ones saying they hoped their grandfather would get better. A lot of “oh honey, of course he will” and “he’s a fighter, he’ll beat cancer” and I lost it. In that moment I decided that as long as we pretended it wasn’t happening or that there was a way around the outcome we wouldn’t feel and be real about the situation. In that moment “self-care” was saying the ugly, honest truth and starting to deal with it (while also helping my little ones learn a vital life lesson, that a lot of hoping and wishing won’t change things. It’s the one thing Disney movies do well, they show families, children, overcoming the loss of a loved one.)
Normalize what it means to be a care partner - if you clicked on the article written by Karen that I linked above, one of the quotes is that during his end-of-life journey her husband shared his innermost thoughts and fears to those who were interested. In making himself vulnerable he was normalizing his experience so that it resonated. I firmly believe that because we don’t talk about the challenge of being a care partner, because we don’t want to burden others with emotions such as sadness or evoke pity, we add to the overwhelm and isolation of the experience. Which is why talking about the ups and the downs, normalizing your experience, is not only an incredible gift to others who have, are, or someday will be care partners, but also to yourself. When we speak what’s in our heart, it releases the pressure it’s causing. And that is the essence of “self-care”.
There are 3 billion articles and links that offer advice on how to take care of yourself, and this blog will simply add to the volume. But what I hoped I shared is that being real, honoring the journey you’re on, escaping from it as needed, and finding ways to continue living your own life, such as working, while being a care partner are ways in which you can decrease the stress and overwhelm of being a care partner. And hopefully, they are ways to release the pressure without adding more to your plate.
In the end, I hope every care partner knows that you don’t need permission to do whatever it takes to maintain balance (and sanity). Or that you have to do something indulgent to check the box of “self-care”. In fact, you have permission to roll your eyes at the idea and google sarcastic responses to being told that you need some time to you (sadly, only 55 million results).
We're in this together...