By Anni Hmelar
Two years into caregiving duties for my mom, neglecting my own self-care has caught up with me. My worried focus on her health has led to deteriorations in my health. Weight? Up. Blood pressure? Up. Fasting blood sugars? All over the place.
I wish I’d known, before starting this life chapter, that although caregiving is tremendously satisfying, it takes a toll on the caregiver. In fact, I wish I’d been given the caregiving equivalent of an airplane safety demonstration. You know, something like:
“As the female adult child of an older parent, it is likely that you will end up caring for your loved one. In the event that you do, secure your own self-care first. “
You see, in terms of personality, I am a failed “covert Type A.” On the surface, I want it to appear that I have everything serene and sorted. Done and dusted. But the reality is, internally, I am worried. In fact, I’m anxious all the time. Is Mom safe? Is the stair railing loose? Will she fall again? How’s her memory this morning? Has she taken her meds? (A wise friend once told me, “Anni, worry is a negative form of prayer.” If so, I am deeply devout.)
You get the picture.
But results from my most recent physical have forced me to rethink my priorities—to realize that I need to put my own oxygen mask on first.
Here’s the deal. To be the best caregiver possible for Mom, I need to make my own well-being a priority. Eat clean. Maintain an appropriate body weight. Get ample amounts of fresh air and exercise. Sleep deeply. Use yoga or meditation to combat the buildup of cortisol in my system.
Conceptually, easy-peasy. But I am failing at this, too. In part because my mom is more homebound than not and needs nearby assistance, should she fall. In another part, because my lifelong coping mechanisms involve a bit of sugar, a shot of vodka, and binge-watching Peaky Blinders or The Handmaid’s Tale into the wee hours.
So, how to reset? It begins with mindfulness. It’s about knowing my current health status and taking specific measures, literally, so I can take corrective action before changes become overwhelming to make—or, as in my case, require pharmaceuticals. It’s telling myself, “Anni, put your own oxygen mask on first before you help the one who depends on you.”
Given all that, here’s what I am recommending—for myself, for caregiving beginners, and for old pros who may not realize they are getting set up for caregiver burnout.
Day one of caregiving (or today!), record two easy-to-get baseline health metrics.
- Weight – Major fluctuations up or down from a healthy weight can signal something is out of whack. Are you binge-eating, or does stress have you at a loss for appetite? Get a scale, and monitor what’s happening with your weight. Daily checks are useful. Address major shifts with your doctor.
- Blood Pressure – Invest in a blood pressure monitor and take note if there is a steady increase in your morning reading. For 58 years, I had “textbook” healthy blood pressure readings—120 over 70 (did you see my gold stars?). However, in the past year a consistent, albeit incremental increase to 145-over-90 readings took me—and my heart—by surprise! The need to start taking meds to check the rise has been a catalyst for making changes in my self-care.
Lucky me, diabetes runs in my family, so I am also checking my fasting blood sugars each morning with a glucose monitor. Thankfully, I am still well within normal range; however, I know that stress caused by burnout impairs the way my body handles sugar—and my overall health.
Tracking these metrics provides some good information on how your body is responding to the rewards and worries of being a caregiver. They also give you foresight on how you can best take care of yourself.
In researching the airplane safety demo metaphor, I learned that in some instances of airplane depressurization, passengers have fewer than 18 seconds to get their mask over their mouth and nose before losing consciousness. Eighteen seconds! Yup. It’s that urgent that you take care of yourself first in order to be of help to others. Now, for most of us, daily caregiving presents few instances where 18 seconds will make a critical difference to an outcome. But consistently applying self-care—and understanding a few critical measurements—is essential to both your well-being and your ability to care well for your loved one.