FEEL: The challenges--and blessings--of caregiving

People are often surprised when I say that being diagnosed with breast cancer--and dealing with the mainstream treatments that followed--wasn't the most challenging time in my life. Instead, my award for "Let's Not Do That Ever Again" goes to those times (yes, two!) that my husband faced his serious health scares. That's because being the caregiver ain't easy.

Besides the expected burden that comes from worrying about another person's well-being, a caregiver experiences the pressure of always being "on." Whether your charges include an aging relative, an ill partner, a busy family,  or even stressed students or employees, you become another's eyes, ears, voice, and decision-maker. You're often put squarely in control--a place where some people thrive--but you're simultaneously along for the out-of-control ride that is dealing with another's physical health, and the medical system in general. I held things together pretty well in front of Scott when he was seriously injured in a work accident in June of 2002 ... until we went to go pick up his prescriptions after nearly two weeks in the burn unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. Because his doctor had inadvertently written the scripts for the controlled pain meds Scott required for another patient on the floor with a similar-sounding name, our pharmacy (an hour round-trip from the hospital, under perfect traffic conditions) wouldn't fill them. So I did the only thing I could: I plunked myself down on the curb in the parking lot and burst into tears. 

Despite the stress and fear, caregiving has unmeasurable rewards. My husband and I were oddly blessed that he was still on reduced work hours from his second burn contracture release surgery while I was home recovering from my mastectomy. We felt older than our years as we shuttled to endless medical appointments during the day, keenly aware that we were the youngest couple in the waiting rooms (by decades) and appreciating that we could be there for each other. And by the time Scott's heart went into what his cardiologist called "a deadly rhythm" when he phoned me at 3 a.m., days after his quadruple bypass surgery in 2010 (unrelated to his accident years before), I was a caregiving pro. I made the drive back into Brigham and Women's Hospital in record time, coordinating pet- and housesitters, errand coverage, and moral support via my cellphone. You learn how to hold it all together ... until you can't.

I've picked up a few things during my caregiving stints--maybe you'll find them helpful, too:

  • Instead of trying to do everything yourself, accept help, and ask if you need something. It's good for you and makes those offering feel needed. I'll never forget the friend who canned all the tomatoes in my garden in 2002. We appreciated that sauce for months when all we had the time and energy for were quick meals. In 2010, others did our laundry, raked our yard, stacked firewood, and rolled our trash barrels to the curb. These "little things" were huge helps.
  • Try to keep good records. Save receipts, take notes, and use your smartphone voice recorder. You have far too much going on to remember everything. 
  • And finally, find some time for yourself. A meditative walk, a restorative yoga class, or even five minutes of mindful breathing in a quiet room ... all of these would give your body and brain the break they so desperately need.

When you're a caregiver, it can be hard to imagine a time when you aren't worrying about someone else. But remember that you really do need that airline oxygen mask first. You need your physical and mental strength to support not just yourself, but your lucky charge as well.

Get some caregiving tools you can use this Saturday, April 15, 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at my new workshop, Mindful Movement/Rejuvenating Rest. We'll meet in the beautifully renovated third-floor space at Open Doors Yoga Studios in Weymouth for a slow yoga flow, aromatherapy and reiki--suitable for all levels. Do something just for you and sign up now to reserve your space.

We took those vows pretty seriously in 2001 ... just a year later we'd come to appreciate the true meaning of "commitment."

We took those vows pretty seriously in 2001 ... just a year later we'd come to appreciate the true meaning of "commitment."