Can caregivers be healthy? All the literature tells us how caregivers are not so good at caring for themselves, all the diseases for which they have increased risks. Is there a way to change that?
I had a conversation today with a woman whose husband had ALS; he died this past February. They had lived 8 years with the disease, the last 5 with her as his primary caregiver.
When we first met, this woman showed all the signs of a caregiver doing her best and burning out. She was angry, tearful, exhausted. She had talked with a counselor at the ALS Association who broached the subject of her getting away – a respite to take care of herself. That conversation gave her permission to come to Nancy’s House, where she learned some important lessons in self-care.
The first was that it was not just ok, but absolutely imperative, that she take time for herself. As she said in an early Facebook entry, “I have learned that if I am crying, it’s time for me to take a few days of respite.” Whether depression, exhaustion, or frustration, the crying was a signal that she had run out of gas emotionally and needed to refuel.
The second was the value of connecting with other ALS caregivers. That she could both give and receive support was an important lesson. She continues to heal herself by helping other ALS families, when she can do so without hurting herself, through donating items or talking about things they may experience.
The third thing she learned was the value of meditation. This is an important skill that is taught in Nancy’s House retreats. It is helpful for finding inner strength and peace; for learning that this moment, no matter how difficult, will pass. More importantly, new research is finding that meditation can actually undo some of the physiologic damage created by caregiver (and other) stress.
A suggestion that sounds easier than it is to do is to eat in a more healthful manner. At a recent retreat, eight women spent half an hour sharing recipes and cooking ideas as they all tried to eat in ways that support their immune systems and their bodies and give them better energy.
An expert in the effects of trauma and stress, Joan Borysenko has a new book out called The PlantPlus Diet Solution that individualizes food choices and helps rebalance what stress and trauma have done physiologically.
Calvin Coolidge said, “We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.” Small changes, one at a time, add up to big changes in health maintenance – even for the most stressed caregiver.
Here is a list of 8 things you can do. Pick one to start with, and, when it is comfortable, add another.
- Eat well
- Take time for yourself – in small quantities like a 12 minute meditation
- In larger quantities, like a respite retreat
- Stay connected with others – friends, caregivers, people you love
- Exercise on a regular basis
- Get undisturbed sleep – you may need to leave home for this one.
- Ask for help
- Remember to breathe
You can be a healthy caregiver. Just start with something.