Caregiver, Heal Thyself!

“Caregiver, Heal Thyself!”…. it’s at twist on the biblical adage and my motto for 2016. We are the first line of defense for our loved ones. But too often we get injured or run down and fail to care for our health.

Caregiver Heal Thyself

Warm winter = thin ice

In 2015, I suffered a dislocated shoulder, chronic lower back strain, and plenty of wrist pain. Early in the year I got a mysterious skin infection which went away after I was treated with anti-biotics. My doctor suspected that I contracted MRSA from my mom. He didn’t reveal his theory until it healed because he knew I would panic. After the infection disappeared, he explained that many older people who have spent time in a hospital, residential care, a rehabilitation center, or a nursing home will carry the MRSA bacteria. They can bring it home and transmit it through skin-to-skin contact. My little scar still reminds me of this extremely painful episode.

If we stay aware of our health problems, we can do more about them. For years I’ve used yoga as a tool for healing muscular pain as soon as I notice it. I have a subscription to an online service called YogaGlo.  I’m not sure this would work for #caregivers who have never taken a #yoga class. However, if you have a yoga studio nearby, you can get some basic instruction first. Yoga is a tremendous aid for maintaining your health. YogaGlo costs $18 a month and can use the service from a computer, iPad, or smart phone — or all three. If you get your TV reception through a ROKU box like I do, you can also watch it on your TV. Cable subscriptions and satellites are too expensive. Since we rarely have time to watch TV, we like ROKU much better.

Online exercise channels are great for caregivers, especially if your loved one needs 24 hour care like my mom does. When you’re feeling worn down, you can choose a session to start healing a specific body part without ever leaving the house. My online yoga classes are as short as 5 minutes — or as long as two hours. I try to do a 20 minute class before I lift my mom out of bed in the morning. It makes me much more limber and it warms up my shoulder before I stress it again.

I don’t know why we get so careless with our health. Most of us know the terrible statistics about caregiver illnesses. These items, quoted from Caregiver.org should scare you a little:

  • Caregivers suffer from increased rates of physical ailments (including acid reflux, headaches, and pain/aching), increased tendency to develop serious illness, and have high levels of obesity and bodily pain.
  • Studies demonstrate that caregivers have diminished immune response, which leads to frequent infection and increased risk of cancers.
  • Caregivers exhibit exaggerated cardiovascular responses to stressful conditions which put them at greater risk than non-caregivers for the development of cardiovascular syndromes such as high blood pressure or heart disease.

I can’t bear to mention any more. We know this job is hard and we know it hurts. But we must remind ourselves that we also have choices about how we treat our bodies. Make 2016 the year when you make #caregiver health a priority.

 

Four Seasons of Caregiving

I do my caregiving in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania where the four seasons are usually quite distinct. It’s Christmas today. Though we have no snow for the first December in years, I don’t miss the shoveling and bitter winds. Caregiving makes me feel like I’m going through four seasons at once, regardless of the weather.

Four Seasons of Caregiving

Being a caregiver for someone with dementia complicates your emotional life. This is especially true around the holidays. I get a warm, springlike sense of gratitude while reflecting on the fact that my mom has made it to another Christmas. It’s great to witness the small pleasures she still enjoys. The lights around our patio imitate dripping icicles. They fascinate Mom. Her eyes sparkle with delight when my sister hugs her. No moments are warmer than these.

But at the same time that I feel this rush of happiness, I also have a sense of autumnal sadness. Mom’s lost so much of her capacity to live a full life. She can barely walk, even with lots of assistance. Her eyesight is almost gone. What else can she lose, I wonder? Is there a line past which all pleasure in life disappears?

Four Seasons of Caregiving -- Fall

Nothing about this melancholy feeling is surprising. Who wouldn’t be sad watching the slow decline of  a loved one? The bursts of hope are what really shocks. After eight years, wild fits of optimism overtake me when Mom is having a really good day. Once in a while she utters a complete, logical sentence and my heart just soars at the sound of her rare words.

The problem occurs when you leap from the hope of spring to the sweet summery expectation that things will get better. You start to believe the skies will be blue again and the sun will warm our skin. Maybe that’s true for us, but probably not for our loved ones. There is no setting back the clock on dementia. One good day or even one good week will not regenerate the skills of someone with grave neurological problems like my mom’s. Our future is more likely to be full of rocky weather and worsening symptoms.

In the end, it doesn’t matter much what emotional season we find ourselves in. We have to do our best to hold it all together and keep the ship afloat. May the winter holidays offer you hidden joys, sparks of hope, and a sense of peace to help you steer through every struggle and find happiness wherever you are.