The heart of a caregiver is an exceptional organ. It is strong enough to take on unbelievable tasks and burdens with grace and soft enough to bring comfort to another whose pain, physical or emotional, is overpowering. The caregiver’s heart is filled to overflowing with love and yet can be a fierce advocate for a loved one.
The truths and paradoxes that lie in the emotional heart are all given display – in the upsurge of stories of caregiving being told in the media, and even in the stories we tell ourselves, as in the above paragraph. But what happens to the caregiver’s real, physical heart is not as….well, “heartwarming” a story.
It is difficult, when there are so many caregiving tasks to accomplish, to recognize self-care as important. It is easy to put off that trip to the gym or to the doctor. It is easy to eat ready-made foods that are high fat and high calorie. In fact, some of those foods even improve mood – temporarily.
As a result, caregivers can unwittingly put their own heart health at risk. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that women who are providing care for a spouse developed higher rates of coronary heart disease. A current report from the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, Caregiving Strain and Estimated Risk for Stroke and Coronary Heart Disease Among Spouse Caregivers, found that spousal caregivers, particularly men and, most significantly African-American men, have much higher risks of stroke.
Both hearts, the physical one and the emotional one, need to be tended and nurtured. One supports the other as they both support you through your caregiving. “Walkie-talkies” with a friend, that is, doing a quick-paced 30 minute walk and talking with a trusted friend about what is going on, addresses both hearts. A delicious weekly heart-healthy dinner with a friend or family member who loves you also takes care of both hearts, especially if the meal has enough left-overs to last a few days.
The American Heart Association lists ways caregivers can protect their own heart health. Carol for Heart, a Bucks County foundation, is dedicated to educating women on the often-unrecognized symptoms of a heart problem and ways to promote heart health.
What makes it so hard for us to take that focus? Why do we so easily see what the other needs but not ourselves? That is probably the focus for other research and articles, but perhaps part of it is that we only listen to one heart, the one that is giving and nurturing, the one that speaks others’ needs.
The voice of the physical heart is much quieter. It only becomes loud at the point of danger, as in a heart attack, and that can be too late.
So, as caregivers, we must learn to listen to and take care of both hearts. Because the heart of a caregiver is an exceptional organ.