When I worked as a psychotherapist, I constantly struggled with the issue of self-care. I was always much better at taking care of others than I was at taking care of myself. I attended workshops and became involved in my professional associations because those activities felt good and were part of my self-nurturing, but they also ate up energy, so they were not as restorative as necessary.
When I had the opportunity to move out of the practice of psychology and into business, I jumped at the chance. Mental health care can be very demanding and eighteen years of other-focus seemed like my limit.
Then Katrina flooded my Mother’s home. Since September of 2005, she has lived with us and is now 92. I have become her primary caregiver. Although she is able to take care of many of her own needs, as she has aged and become more frail, the time and energy required of me has increased.
Last week I attended a webinar offered by my health insurance carrier. United Healthcare seems pretty intent on offering services that might prevent or mitigate illness. When I got their newsletter announcing the workshop, Take Care of the Caregiver, I signed right up. The information and suggestions they offered will undoubtedly prove valuable for me. My guess is that other insurers offer similar resources.
After attending their seminar, I got to thinking a bit about their ideas and others I have heard. These are a few I have gleaned over time.
- Practice mindfulness. Being really ‘present’ in whatever you are doing diminishes the frittering away of time and energy. This can be quite difficult to do when you feel great pressure and the demands of caring for others, but it is very much worth the effort to practice some activity that will assist you in focusing on the things and people for which you are responsible. For some of us, meditation can be helpful. For others, exercise does the job. Whatever method you prefer for increasing your ability to attend well to the persons in your care, use it. Get rid of the excuses and move forward.
- Set limits on what you can and will do.You cannot possibly be responsible for everything. Most psychotherapists know this, but it is often difficult not to feel responsible for the entire well-being of clients. Once you have learned to set boundaries as a therapist, it is easier to maintain your energy.The same is true when doing other sorts of caregiving. Know what you are able and willing to do and only do that. This will mean that you may need to find others to provide what you cannot, but that is OK. Just make sure that you know where your abilities and willingness end, that it is perfectly OK to have those end points, and that and your charges will be happier and better off for that clarity.
- Let others help you. It is much easier to set limits on what you will do if you let others help you. If you are taking care of children, that means letting their grandparents, aunts and uncles pitch in. If you are taking care of an elder, it may mean involving your siblings or finding programs and assistance in your community. If you are taking care of clients with behavioral health disorders, it may mean delegating tasks to others i1 your organization as well as finding a network of resources in your community that your clients can use.
- Take some time for yourself. Give yourself a moment whenever you can. Even brief times can have major impact. Just sit still and breathe for a minute or two. Go for a walk alone. Sit and watch the sun set. Schedule a manicure or a facial or a mini-spa day…or give yourself one. Indulge in a massage. If possible, schedule regular time away from those to whom your provide care. Utilize some of the others in your life so you can schedule an afternoon, a weekend, or a week away. You need vacation time. Take it.
- Schedule rest. Do your best to get enough sleep. If adequate continuous sleep is not a possibility, schedule mini-rest breaks into your day. If you always feel exhausted, you are less likely to be the kind of caregiver you would prefer to be. If you are permanently tired, you are more likely to experience suppression of your immune system and susceptibility to illness. Letting others help you may give you the time you need to rest.
I wish I could say I am good at these five things. I am working to be better at them. I’ll let you know when I get there.
I am sure many of you have found ways to take care of yourselves so you can do a better job of taking care of others. Please share some of your secrets. Inquiring minds want to know!