If you’re a stressed out daughter or son to an aging parent, you might be asking yourself what it means to take care of yourself. And more specifically, what does it look like?
The answer is this: You have to find what works for you.
Many articles extol the virtues of taking a day off, eating well and/or getting more sleep, etc as the best forms of caregiver support. Spas would certainly like it if you combated stress by spending a day in one, immersed in mud or swathed in warm towels after a deep tissue massage.
And I’m not knocking this advice. In fact, I’d say that it is excellent! If you can heed it you should…as often as possible.
But there is another level of stress that makes taking the day off, or even a hot bath seem completely impractical. This is the kind of stress that takes root in a loved one’s health crisis. It’s watered by financial concerns and fertilized by hospital stays.
To experience this kind of stress is to live “in the thick” of caregiving, where the line between the exhaustion that comes from being with your loved one and the worry that accompanies being separated is razor thin.
Reducing stress “in the thick” has little to do with stealing away for a day…
To survive, you have to focus on stealing moments.
Consider for a minute a caregiver I’ll call Dan whom I met several years ago in a hospital cafeteria. Dan and his ill wife had traveled 2000 miles by bus so that she could receive an experimental treatment he’d read about on the Internet. Now, 55 days into his wife’s hospitalization, the welcome at his friend’s apartment was wearing thin and what little savings he had was dwindling quickly.
“It’s like I’m staring into the great unknown,” he told me. “I don’t know what will come next or if I’ll be able to handle it so I’m doing what I can to stay in the moment.”
I didn’t know Dan but I was immediately and abundantly concerned for him. The fact that he was able to focus on the present and resist the temptation to project into the future was the reason he had come so far but reality was beating on the door.
I knew that I could offer Dan emotional support, perhaps even assist him in finding more suitable housing. But as our conversation drew to a close it was his stress that worried me more than anything. It was palpable. Like watching a jetty being pounded by the ocean’s waves.
Significant stress requires that you think differently to relieve it
Stress like the kind Dan was experiencing affects every part of our being from how we think, to how we feel and from what we eat to how well we sleep. Put simply, it laughs in the face of our usual coping skills and challenges us to develop new ones in order to stay afloat. At the same time, it won’t be ignored. Over time I’ve learned that combating severe stress like Dan’s begins with doing the thing that feels the most unnatural: focusing more intently on yourself.
“So tell me how, Maria – how do I take care of myself when all I can think about is taking care of my wife?”
“You slow down the pace just a little so that you can begin to take notice of the moments that feel even the slightest bit lighter than the others. At first what you find might seem odd or insignificant, but make note of it anyway. Moments add up, and knowing what to do to make you feel even a little bit better when things are especially rough is very comforting.”
I wasn’t sure what Dan thought of my suggestion, but he thanked me sincerely for my time and we agreed to stay in touch. A few weeks later there was a knock on my office door and it was Dan.
“Guess what,” he said.
“Bookstores play peaceful music and when I spend more than my usual two minutes in one, I begin to feel a little lighter. I learned that the other day when it started to pour rain on my way to the hospital. I didn’t have an umbrella so I ducked into a bookstore to wait it out. I’ve been in this place a few times, but never noticed the music until there it was. It’s such a small thing that I never would have thought twice about it before, but I wrote it down.”
“Bookstore music, huh?”
“Bookstore music,” he said. “Oh, and walking down this certain block when I leave the hospital. It’s busting with restaurants and there are always people eating who seem so happy and full of life. I get energy from that even though I can’t explain why.”
“I wonder what else works…” I said.
“Me too,” said Dan as he flashed a quick smile and turned to catch the elevator.
How do you relieve the stress that you feel in relation to caring for an aging parent? Another thing that I’ve seen help many family caregivers is to get organized. Head on over to that page for some additional thoughts or read my tips for busy family caregivers with “day” jobs!