By Lisa J. Shultz
I’ve learned firsthand how important it is to take care of yourself when caring for a loved one.
At age 86, my mom fell and broke her hip. After a hip replacement and five weeks in rehab, she returned home. She had been independent prior to this event and had a successful surgery and rehabilitation; however the event exacerbated an underlying heart condition. Furthermore, she had a shingles outbreak in her left arm at the time of the fall and had ongoing severe pain and disability in her hand. She needed oxygen and help with activities of daily living. She was no longer independent and I became her caregiver for three months in late 2017. During that period of time, caregiving took a toll both physically and mentally. My immune system was weakened due to not getting enough rest and sleep as well as constant anxiety. My weight dropped, I was sick more often than usual and I lost my sense of vitality.
Thankfully I had been in the habit of investing in my health prior to the onset of caregiving responsibilities. I had to remind myself not to stop doing important health preserving measures. I budgeted for wellness treatments such as massage, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, yoga and other health-oriented services and activities. I also took nutritional supplements. I needed those treatments during difficult times to regain optimal health and replenish myself.
Fortunately, self-care remained on my mind even when I was absorbed in caregiving responsibilities such as helping my mom dress and undress, getting in and out of the shower, preparing meals and dispensing medication. I had moved into a basement bedroom and became nurse, cook, cleaner, and around the clock manager of my mom’s precarious heart and constant needs. Flight attendants say to passengers before take off, “put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” I had to remember that adage or I would collapse under the strain of caregiving. On some days, a hot bath with a book provided relief. I found soothing music to send me off to sleep. I dabbed lavender and other relaxing essential oils on my wrists or added them to my bath water. I ate some of my favorite comfort foods. And I danced.
Dancing is therapeutic for me. I had started taking lessons in West Coast Swing shortly before my mom fell. I wanted to continue classes, so I found someone to come to stay with my mom for a few hours each week so I could continue to improve my skill level. West Coast Swing is an intricate and complicated dance. Its complexity forced me to concentrate so hard on my cues and my partner that I couldn’t think about caregiving too and so it cleared my mind from those worries.
In West Coast Swing, there is a critical anchor step between patterns that means the difference between a beautiful dance or bumbling the sequence. In dancing as well as caregiving, I needed to anchor and reset frequently. If my mom and I had a tough day, I just told myself to anchor, breathe and start again in the morning.
After three months of being a caregiver for my mom in her home, we decided it was time for her to move to an assisted living facility. This decision would allow me to return to a role of daughter rather than nurse and resume my own life. Having my mom’s daily needs addressed with a staff of trained professionals also brought me the opportunity to travel again.
Traveling is another way for me to indulge in self-care. At times during the care of my mom I was overwhelmed by her needs and the demands of the circumstances. I still managed my mom’s overall care in her new facility, but my daily responsibilities lightened and I decided to plan a trip to get perspective.
A few months after my mom’s move, I booked a trip to southern California. I hiked for three hours in Joshua Tree National Park. I love that park, its rock formations and strange trees. This enchanting park filled my soul up when it was depleted. I loved the sun and cloud formations. The rock piles gave off energy and beauty that seeped into me like lotion to dry skin.
On that trip, I also watched professional tennis players at Indian Wells. When I observe in person athletic excellence, I feel inspired. I can also appreciate a wide range of emotions such as excitement, nervousness, frustration or exhilaration as they win or lose. By watching these top players compete, I could set aside my nearly constant state of sadness and overwhelming to-do list.
I am grateful for the opportunity to dance and travel. For me, those experiences revive my soul. I knew that I needed to fill up my cup to be able to keep giving when I returned back home. Others may have different interests but it is ideal to create a self-care plan. I also have daughters who observe my behavior and I believe modeling balance with self-care is preferable to martyrdom. It is okay to take a break.
Caregivers may need to let others know what they most need before they reach a point of exhaustion. It can be tempting to postpone self-care until after the death of a loved one. Caregivers are often consumed with the needs and care decisions of someone in decline. However, I encourage caregivers to find ways to give back to themselves even when they are in the thick of it. Make yourself a priority too! You deserve it!
Lisa J. Shultz is the author of A Chance to Say Goodbye: Reflections on Losing a Parent. Find out more about Lisa at https://lisajshultz.com.