When I’m working with a caregiver over the phone and I hear them struggling to prioritize their needs or find the time and energy to keep well, it’s incredibly difficult for me to respond with: “Put your own oxygen mask on first before helping the person you are caring for.”
It’s one thing for caregivers to understand that if they run out of oxygen, they can’t help anyone else with their oxygen mask; it’s another for caregivers to imagine this small act is even possible when they feel stretched to their limit.
Self-compassion is essential to overall wellbeing. Being kind to yourself the way you’d be kind to a friend is the foundation to self-care. Self-compassion is “on-the-job” self-care and doesn’t require a break from caregiving like other suggested forms of self-care (i.e. exercise, time alone, etc.). Self-compassion is the ability to notice when you’re struggling – to see and hear yourself – and to feel tenderness for yourself in difficult moments. The demands of caregiving are such that, at some point, all of us will fall short of our own and others’ expectations, so the ability to meet the imperfections of caregiving with self-compassion makes caregiving more sustainable.
Research suggests finding one or two activities that fit in with your unique lifestyle and interests. Whether it’s a physical activity, creative or intellectual exercise or relaxation, when we involve ourselves in something we enjoy, it creates momentum to take care of ourselves in other ways. When faced with a challenging schedule and the often-emotional role of caregiving, we rarely have time to do as much as we’d like to keep us well, so making time for this one activity can impact all areas of our lives.
Wellbeing also includes connecting with others, asking for help and sharing the care. Caregivers often feel the need to be very independent. While being independent and resilient are both strengths, the blind spots include feelings of isolation and possible caregiver burnout. Reach out to a friend, to a peer or to a support line or group for caregivers.
Starting small with being well can create opportunity to see the benefits of self-care. Small amounts of self-care along the way are a much better plan for living well than a crash course in wellness that lasts for a day. Wellness does not mean you won’t ever feel stressed or tired – or that you’ll find time for it every day. There will be peaks and valleys. It’s a shift in mindset. It is about embracing the idea that “I am a priority” and my wellbeing is just as important as the person I’m caring for. It’s also seeing wellness and self-care as part of a lifestyle. You may get off track, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get back on track and ensure you spend even a small amount of time on the one thing that makes you well.
Finally, finding time for wellness or self-care doesn’t need to mean self-improvement (although don’t be surprised if you see some benefits – big or small!). Calling a friend who lifts you up, saying no, finding five minutes to have a cup of tea in silence or closing your eyes are all acts of self-care and being well.