What gives people the strength and endurance to take care of others over a long period of time? While most of us are happy to help people out now and then, a number of my friends are providing continuous care. This opens up a different kettle of fish.
- Some have helped a struggling parent for a decade.
- One has patiently taken care of a bed-ridden husband for eight years.
- One is dealing with a friend’s ongoing depression.
- Another copes with his wife’s dementia, knowing that it will only get worse and additional care will be required.
To help others like this often requires that we always be on-call and available, and change our plans to help them. This pulls us away from the time we need to recharge, regroup, and remember what we like to do in our spare time. On some days we’re exhausted and getting out of bed is hard. Yet we get up, and go to help them.
If we don’t recharge our batteries, the lights in our eyes will flicker and go dark.
My dad was a family doctor in a small town where there weren’t many doctors and he didn’t feel he could say no when people were suffering. He often went out on house calls, even in the middle of the night. I know he tried to get another doctor to join his practice so he could have time off, but he was unsuccessful. After 17 years, he was physically worn down, emotionally burned out, and had to quit.
When it’s a family member who needs extra help, it’s hard to set personal boundaries. And if we are the only family member left, it’s almost impossible to say no because then we feel a boatload of guilt. I suspect that when we are worn out it’s obvious to others. The bounce is missing from our step and joy has disappeared from our face.
How do caregivers take care of themselves without feeling guilty? Some go hiking in nature. Some find renewal in their faith. Some do yoga, garden, or build things out of wood. Some create pottery with their hands, paint, collect stamps, or play a musical instrument.
While those we help do appreciate the physical things we do for them—the cleaning, cooking, shopping, and mowing the lawn—they aren’t always vocal about their gratitude, and sometimes we feel taken for granted. I suspect that what they value more than what we actually do is our presence, our conversations, and our smiles because these remind them that they are still part of a community.
When we don’t know what to do or say to help someone, or if we are just dog tired and can’t think straight, we can ask the Power of the universe for help. We can sit in the woods, or along a river, and listen. Often we feel guidance, wisdom, or strength. These are moments of grace.
Life is best lived in balance. We know this. But there are times when someone needs help, and we really, really don’t want to, because we feel ourselves collapsing and we desperately need time alone. Then we need to say “no,” step away, and take care of ourselves.
While we may be that person’s convenient first choice, there are probably others waiting in the wings who’d love to help, but they’ve never been asked because we always say yes. Give them a chance to be on center stage.