Who Cares for the Caregiver?
No doubt you have heard the story of the frog and the kettle. If you drop a frog in hot water, he will jump out. If, however, you put him into cool water and gradually increase the temperature, he will stay where he is and will eventually cook. I have to say I have never tried this with a real frog so I am taking the story at face value. I think it is more about the analogy, though, than actually cooking a frog.
During the past year I came to feel like that cooking frog. When Mom and Dad moved in I anticipated we would be two couples living under one roof. They had lived on their own for years and so I pictured us being there if they needed us but, for the most part, they would live their lives and we would live ours. I had no idea how unsafe it had been for them living alone. It was only when they were with us that I realized how much they needed help.
Initially I had pictured working from home on the days I couldn't get into the office. It sounded like a good arrangement, but it turned out to be impossible. The changes began rather simply with helping Dad while Mom was in rehab. Then when she came home, the doctor determined she was not to be left alone and they didn't count Dad as someone being there with her. Then there were home visits from physical therapy, occupational therapy, and the visiting nurse. Each one of them came on a different day, so each day had some activity that required me being there.
Then Dad developed some problems that required additional doctor visits at the same time that Mom had to continue seeing the orthopedic surgeon for her fall. In addition, hearing aids started going out and we had to visit audiology. Dad routinely saw a cardiologist, so that was another visit or two. Their primary care doctor likes to see them every few months, so those visits got factored in. Somewhere in there I had to go grocery shopping and take care of other errands. Before very long every day had one, two, or three appointments or required trips.
The crashing waves started to overwhelm me. I thought if I just bailed fast enough, I could keep up but, somewhere in the midst of it all, I got lost. One need piled on top of another. I stopped taking my vitamins and other supplements. I couldn't find time for exercise. I gained 20 pounds. I wasn't sleeping and felt exhausted all the time. Yet, even then, I didn't see the warning signs.
Eventually December rolled around and Christmas was approaching. Now Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love the decorations and all the celebration. I love buying and giving gifts. Yet last year as Christmas got closer I found myself thinking, "Yuck, I have to decorate the house and buy presents and then cook a dinner." When those negative thoughts began swirling in my head, I realized something was drastically wrong.
Where had I gone? I was so busy taking care of others that I was completely neglecting taking care of me. I had worked hard the year before to lose weight and now it was just piling back on at an alarming rate. My lifestyle was unhealthy and I was suffering because of it. I started looking for answers.
Since then I have found out much about caregiving. It is not unusual for the primary caregiver to begin neglecting her- or himself. It is not unusual for the caregiver to lose working hours and income. In fact, I read that the average female caregiver loses over $350,000 in salary and benefits when she becomes a fulltime caregiver. While taking care of others, we have to take care of ourselves! It is not selfish, it is an absolute necessity!
There are so many support groups for caregivers, both on site and online. We need to take advantage of those who will help us take care of ourselves. We also must recognize that we can't do it all. I have since hired someone to be with Mom and Dad three days a week so I can go into the office. I feel connected with life again! That arrangement still gives me time for appointments, but I make them on days I am not working in the office. It takes some planning and effort, but I am getting my life back.
It is far too easy to get swallowed up in dealing with the needs of caring for parents. It is healthy, for us and for them, that we have a full life of our own. We need to take time with the Lord for spiritual health, time to rest and relax for mental health, and time for exercise and nutrition for physical health. It is far too easy to blame our circumstances for neglecting our own lives and it does take planning to get it all in. Yet in caregiving, we must care for ourselves with the same commitment we have for caring for others. So, what good thing are you going to do for you today?