I’ve encountered endless advice on how to stay healthy as a caregiver, and frankly, most of these long lists don’t seem realistic under the crazed circumstances. We all have different areas where we fall apart, and we usually know what we SHOULD be doing for self-care, but have plenty of compelling reasons that we’re not always listening when self-neglect starts to creep in. When it comes to tips for staying sane under insane circumstances, I find that simplest is best.
1) Notice your breathing
When I start to fall apart, my breathing takes a big dive, and oxygen depletion can only make a bad day worse. If I can capture a small bit of self-awareness and tune in when I’m stressed, I’ll notice I’m doing short little bursts of sucking in air, like hyperventilating in slow motion. Poor body! It doesn’t need near suffocation on top of everything else.
The experts on relaxation and mindfulness teach us to notice our breath, instead of forcefully trying to change it. That takes a big load off. You don’t have to chant or meditate or stand on your head with noble thoughts. You don’t have to do anything, or change anything – just notice.
I try to remember this each time I drive on the highway, since that’s the place I habitually fade into my head and start obsessing about what I haven’t done and should do, and thereby find endless ways to escalate my stress. Attending to my breathing short-circuits all that, and also helps me move outside myself, to see the landscape, the trees changing color, cloud formations, and wow – the other night I got reacquainted with the immense display of stars out in the country…. so much beauty and peace all around us that’s so easy to forget and take for granted.
2) Cultivate Gratitude
Keep finding the gems within the worst situations.
My mother is much more than miserable most of the time lately. She wants to die every time her Parkinson’s meds wear off, (about four times a day,) and doesn’t hide it from me in the least. As hard as this is on my heart, I feel grateful that she feels comfortable letting out her true feelings. I would hate if she had to suffer all that inside, alone, as she was just a year ago when she lived far away. When I can get her to laugh or to crack a sarcastic joke, it’s like a lightning strike of her old self returning to the room, a little treat.
Today I took Mom and her friend out of their assisted living residence for a drive out to a cafe. It was a gorgeous shimmery day, with the leaves just peeking out with autumn colors. They complained the way there; it was like the complaining Olympics. There was mud on my car, they hadn’t been to a movie for weeks, they were sick of living in a locked facility and having no driver’s license, they were fed up with having to eat breakfast at 8 a.m., and so on….
Yet they both have a dry, sarcastic sense of humor that they’ve retained so far, despite much other confusion, and they cultivate that quality in each other. As we were sitting with our lunch and talking, they referred to their residence as “the salt mine”, and I nearly choked on my tea laughing, which set them off too, and that was our joke for the rest of the afternoon. I stopped trying to make things better and joined in their world a bit.
3) Let go of something I’m battling with, regularly.
Give up a struggle that won’t matter in the long run, where too much energy is being expended. The more I do this, the more I want to remember to keep doing it. It’s an automatic infusion of energy to just say no to your old habits and take a new path.
- Let your messy teenager (who’s been messy since the womb and will always be messy) have a disheveled room for a month, and see how you both feel.
- Liberate yourself from being angry at your sibling(s) and other relatives and friends for being absentee from helping with caregiving, from not visibly caring about you, from just not getting it (which probably applies to your friends and maybe even your spouse, too). Try to assume that people do the best they can with what they’ve got, and let them be where they are. We won’t change them anyhow, the bitterness does nothing for our sanity, and we never know all the bizarre, endless quirks that make other people tick. So give up the fruitless judging already and let others be their inscrutable selves. Lower your expectations, daily, for people and situations you can’t control. Try to assume the best and think creatively about why s/he (they) may have some very good reasons to not be doing what you think should be happening right now.
- Let go of needing to be right, unless it really matters. Today my mom had two glaringly different socks on – one summer, short and white; one long, wool, and blue, with snowflakes. I decided not to dwell on why the person who helped her get dressed thought this was a good idea. Maybe it’s because it was the weekend, maybe they were wanting Mom to work on independence, or maybe they completely neglected her. I decided to save my advocacy energy for a more substantial issue.
- Let go of items from the past that bring more heaviness than joy, or don’t have a visible, useful space in your home. My mother’s whole unsorted 3-bedroom apartment ended up in our basement after her last move into a much tinier space. Much of it she had saved for me from my childhood home. But memories aren’t in objects, they’re in our hearts. Profuse thanks to Brooks Palmer, the author of Clutter Busting, for finally getting that through to me!
For me, this means that this month I vow to give up the family silver (ware), that my dear Grandma passed down to me (since it was monogrammed with an M and I was named after her), that’s now tarnishing, unappreciated, and provoking guilt in the basement. We’re just not the classy, silver spoon kind of family who will ever have tea parties. I appreciate my late Grandma and all the polishing instructions she gave to me, but I can still love her and let a sophisticated someone else have a ball with the silver M-ware, and I’ll only be the lighter for it. Same with my mom’s boxes of hundreds of molding family photos of people I can’t identify. I can take the ones she remembers stories about and highlight them in one photo album with captions from her descriptions, and let go of the rest. Ah – I feel lighter just anticipating it!
These three guidelines for sanity may seem obvious and simple, but when I can stay conscious enough to heed them on a weekly, if not daily basis, they make a gigantic difference in how my week goes.
Margaret Massey is a gardener, herbalist, crazy cook, part-time teacher, bike commuter, cat mom, caregiver, and a big fan of Peace Pilgrim, Wendell Berry, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Pema Chodron. Margaret writes her blog, The Dopamine Diaries, with the goal of providing a down-to-earth, spunky and humorous glimpse at the heartache and joys of witnessing life with dementia and Parkinson’s disease through her mother. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her bike-happy husband, two spirited cats, and many, many plants.