When everything feels like it’s about others, it’s easy to ignore your own health. And the statistics don’t lie. An author manuscript published on PubMed Central titled: Physical and Mental Health Effects of Family Caregiving, identifies caregiving (which is defined in this case as a family or friend who provides unpaid care to a loved one) as fitting the formula for chronic stress. In fact, it fits so well that caregiving is used as a model to study the health effects of chronic stress.
Another study published in JAMA (albeit in 1999) titled: Caregiving a risk factor for mortality; the Caregiver Health Effects Study showed that caregivers who were providing care and experiencing caregiver strain had mortality risks that were 63 percent higher than non-caregiving controls.
You read that correctly – are you stressed? Are you a caregiver? You’re risk of death is 63 percent higher than a non-caregiver.
But what does this all mean?
Friends – it means that we need to do everything we can to take better care of ourselves. And not just the physical part of ourselves – we also need to take better care of our minds and hearts. Anxiety and depression are common in caregivers – and this ongoing, life-long stress can do damage both mentally and physically.
If we are anything alike, you’re probably not motivated to take care of you just to take care of you. I should be enough to take care of myself, but I’m not. It’s the truth. It takes too much effort to take care of me for myself.
Don’t be like me. You are enough and you are worthy of being cared for.
However, if that isn’t going to work, because it doesn’t for me, care for yourself so that you may continue to care for the person you love and for the others whom you love in your life. I know that if something happens to me, it will greatly impact the life of my darling and the lives of our two littles. And I love them more than anything on earth, so I’m going to do what I need to do to keep on keeping on.
What are the things I do to take care of myself?
- Yearly physical and well woman exam. This is essential. My primary care doctor knows that I’m a caregiver and mother, and she makes sure to run the tests I need to stay well. She also kicks my butt when my butt needs kicking.
- Doctor visits throughout the year when necessary. Upper respiratory infections are “my thing” and my preference is to avoid pneumonia, so I go in when I get sick. Likewise, if I notice something out of the ordinary – a weird new growth, or a bump out of place – the person I run to is my primary care doctor.
- Vision exam, yearly. I’m the only person in our house that drives (for now) – which means that my peepers need to be in good working order.
- Dental exam, every six months. This may be the only thing I do for myself. I have had (since childhood) a recurring nightmare that I will lose all my teeth in my 40s. It’s also a hereditary concern, so I do this for me.
- Family/ Friends/Pastors/Support Groups for social support. A “normal” life isn’t easy, so how could a caregiving life be? Caregivers need support. We need a tribe. It’s so hard to talk about what it’s like to live in this altered universe that is caregiving – but it’s necessary. Otherwise, we run the risk of compounding the anxiety and depression that haunts us. Your circle doesn’t have to be a large one, my vote is for quality not quantity.
- Activities that make me happy. Cooking. Swimming. Reading nerdy articles online. Writing. Watching Call the Midwife on Netflix. I try to do these things in the moments when I have a minute. Cooking is a built-in pleasure that I get to do almost every day since my children and husband like to eat (ha!) and someone must cook.
- Therapy. This is one area that I haven’t yet made a commitment to. While prescribed therapy by a licensed therapist isn’t something I have engaged in yet, the option is there and I have the names of therapists to call on. And when the need presents itself, I will call.
Many caregivers are motivated in life to make everyone else a priority – I’m here to tell you that your life matters. Your health is important. Your happiness is vital.
Some of these appointments may also be a financial burden – there are ways to get the attention you need through social support programs. Nobody asks for a life where the burden of financial strain falls on the shoulders of one person – who may or may not even be able to work. The United Way (call 2-1-1) may be able to direct you so that you, dear caregiver, can get the help that you need too.
I know this sounds like a lot of appointments – it is. And sometimes I need to ask for help to get to the appointments and have coverage at the house. But the added complication of asking for help does not exceed the importance of the visits themselves.
And if you don’t believe me, ask the people you love most.