Wow! At a party the other day, a friend and I were discussing my husband, Arthur, who is a paraplegic. A few minutes into the conversation, my friend asked, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” It stopped me in my tracks! I didn’t have a ready answer. I really had to think about this. What AM I doing to take care of myself?
One of the most challenging aspects of being a caregiver is taking care of ourselves. The needs of the person we are caring for are usually paramount to ours. They need taking care of for a reason – a stroke or cancer patient, elderly and feeble or like my husband, a paraplegic.
It’s usually up to the able-bodied person in the relationship, in our case, me, that tends to our loved one.
My husband had a motorcycle accident 4.5 years ago that left him a paraplegic. After 13 months in rehabs and hospitals, we moved in together, in spite of the warning of many of my friends. One said, “Don’t do it. Can you LIFT him?” Another said, “I wouldn’t. It will be harder to leave him once you move in with him.” Still another said, “I’ve taken care of two husbands. Do you know what you are getting into?”
The answer was, “No.” I had an inkling because I watched my parents take care of my grandparents, but no real practical knowledge. I knew I loved him and I was willing.
Every day, there are hundreds of opportunities to make life easier for my husband. That’s why many of us take on these tasks. Because it’s easier for us than for them. Since energy for my husband is in short supply, if I can take something off his plate that is quicker for me to do, I step up and do it. Except after doing this many times throughout the day, I’ve depleted my reserves. Am I really helping him if, at the end of the day, I am cranky and irritable? Is it helping him if I am not taking care of myself and I get sick?
Because it’s easier to do it, sometimes we convince ourselves that this one time won’t matter. Except it does. All of those one-times add up to many times a day when we are sucking it up and putting our needs aside, leading to exhaustion and resentment.
At the end of the day, when my husband is in bed, he’s in bed for good. So if his wrist guard falls on the floor and he can’t reach it with his grabber, he elicits my help. When he needs an ice pack for his stomach pain, I get it for him. If he wants a snack, he asks me. We have come up with ways to help both of us – putting nuts in a container near his bed, having granola bars within reach, keeping two water bottles near him.
Yesterday, we visited a neighbor. We brought our portable ramp because we knew there were several stairs from the garage into the kitchen. I don’t usually push him up the ramp because wherever we are, there’s usually a strong young man to help. However, this time it was only our 70-year old neighbor and me. I didn’t realize until I began pushing him that the stairs were steep and I was carrying all of his weight plus the weight of his chair. I am 4’9″. I struggled half-way up. I could have either kept pushing him up or let him roll back. Either way, the weight was on me. Arthur helped a little by pulling himself on the one railing. We reversed this when we were leaving, as I wheeled him backwards down the ramp with the weight on me.
It was a terrible idea. I hurt my neck and back doing this. I went home, took a muscle relaxer, put ice on it and went to bed. This morning, I was still in pain.
This is NOT good taking care of myself. I put his needs above my own. I didn’t even think about it. I just did it. Like all the little things I do throughout the day.
It’s easy for someone to say, “Take care of yourself.” But what does that mean? Most of us are running on empty. Adding anything to our plates seems counter-intuitive. Most of our energy is poured into our disabled/sick/injured person. It takes energy just to THINK about what we need. It also means our mind needs to switch from doing for others to thinking about ourselves.
So what AM I doing to take care of myself? It’s a question more of us should answer. Whether you’re a young parent home with toddlers, or a care-giver of an elderly parent or paraplegic, it’s an important question.
Who care-gives the caregiver? I know my husband doesn’t want me to hurt myself. Nor does he want to be a burden. He is self-sufficient and independent, but everything takes 3x longer for him to do since the accident. That’s 3x the energy. We are both portioning out our energy.
What can we do to take care of ourselves? For me, having a weekly class like dancing or art gives me an hour break and something to look forward to. Taking a day off and hanging out with my daughter or babysitting my grand-kids is a boon for me.
Learning to say no is also helpful. Recognizing my limits. No, I can’t push you up those steep stairs. No, I am not getting you ice cream after 10:00pm.
Recently, I set a boundary that whatever my husband needs from me, he needs to ask by 10:00. After that I’m off the clock. I felt like I was landing the blow of a hammer telling my husband this. When I told my friend, he said, “It sounds like a healthy boundary to set.” Oh. I didn’t think of it that way. I just needed an end to my day, like when I used to put my kids to bed. Done. Dog tired.
We can also ask for help. I need to get better at this too. I remember when my mom was the care-giver for my dad at the end of his life, she refused to leave the house, refused to let someone else take care of him while she took a much needed break. She did reach a breaking point and I witnessed it. It wasn’t pretty. Be willing to ask for and receive help.
Can you order food in instead of cooking? Can you take a walk in nature or take a walk just to let off steam? Recently, I’ve begun a brisk morning walk/jog around my neighborhood while I listen to a podcast. It’s amazing that I wake up looking forward to this walk, this time with myself!
Taking care of yourself can be done on many levels- emotionally, physically, mentally. So prayer, exercise and meditation may help. Having a close friend on speed dial when you feel a melt-down coming on can relieve some emotional pressure. I am so grateful for my spiritual sisters!
Daily quiet prayer time is wonderfully helpful to me, even if it’s only 15 minutes in the morning. I have a deep spiritual life so asking God for strength throughout the day goes a long way. Some people go to church daily. Others take a few minutes each day to meditate or take a weekly yoga class.
Taking care of yourself is as individual as you are. The important thing is that we ACKNOWLEDGE that we need to do it, we take the time to IDENTIFY what we need, and we take an ACTION step to do it.
One final tip – it’s a big one- GET ENOUGH REST! Wow what a difference a good night’s sleep makes!
The Italian Grandmama
“There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.” ― Rosalyn Carter