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Becoming a caregiver wasn’t something I had prepared for or could ease into.
The whole thing hit me like a two-ton Mack Truck careening on black ice. One day I was getting ready to move halfway across the country, to start a new job after graduate school, and the next day I discovered that my younger brother, my only sibling, had suffered from a severe and sudden mental health crisis.
We’d soon learn that he would require care for the rest of his life, meaning I would be in this for the long haul.
The ways things have changed is a whole different essay, one that I’m not wholly ready to share at this point. The care of someone mentally ill is complex, not to mention difficult to imagine for those who haven’t spent much time around anyone who’s severely ill in this way. And the bureaucracy of the mental healthcare system is like learning a new language with a different alphabet.
Caregiving is deeply personal and difficult no matter the illness of the person we’re caring for. Caregiving tests us in ways we couldn’t have known before the illness became part of our lives.
This may be why caregiver burnout is so prevalent but not always talked about, possibly because it can make us sound selfish when someone we love is (understandably) so needy. But we can’t help others if we’re not functional ourselves, so I’m going to share a few things I do to maintain my health and sanity during this journey.
And because I matter too, it helps me maintain my interests and identity, even during the difficult times.
Six ways to avoid caregiver burnout:
1. “Sleep when the baby sleeps.”
This is one of those old adages new parents learn, and means exactly what it says: we need to get our rest at the same time as our fussy bundle of joy. Obviously, if we’re caring for an adult, comparing them to a baby isn’t productive, especially if they’re in earshot, but getting our rest at the same time as the person to whom we’re providing care is key.
I use lulls during the day to take a nap, to recharge with a quick shower or bath, or to watch an episode, or four, of my favorite show.
Now, for the bigger-picture scenario (the month to month or year to year), in the course of most illnesses, there are times of relative calm or business-as-usual, and then there are times of increased sickness or even crisis. We can use those times of calm and business-as-usual to take care of our own business. For example, if we work a job in addition to our caregiver duties, we can use that time to get ahead on projects, get in extra exercise, take a weekend trip, or visit friends we haven’t seen in a while.
2. Get outside every single day.
I can’t stress this enough. Take a walk. Be greedy about it.
I walk every morning for 40 minutes, rain or shine. Sometimes I take another 20 minute walk in the afternoon. There’s nothing like fresh air and sunshine and breeze to help us keep things in perspective and stay—pun intended—even-keeled. It will also help keep off the weight that wants to creep on in stressful situations. What’s more, walking is proven to be one of the best forms of exercise around.
3. Accept that some things, or many things, won’t be as they were before.
As a once serious gym-goer, ripped abs and bulging biceps might not be possible now. A slower pace, or even a hiatus, might be necessary if we were blazing through our career. If we were the life of the party, we might need to get used to a quieter life. This will cause resentment and maybe even moments of rage.
Feel the resentment, cry, or (safely) rage about what’s been lost, and then move forward. This is an opportunity to become a more well-rounded human being and to discover new parts of ourselves and maybe even new paths we wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
4. Build a support network, and lean into it.
(Hopefully you’re not doing this alone, and there are other family members or friends who can share the caregiving duties—everyone on the caregiving “team” is a caregiver. But if you’re trying to do this alone, stop it. You will burn out.)
Caregiving is not just about changing sheets, following the medication schedule, and getting the person to their doctor appointments. It also often involves lots of research and paperwork. It involves frequent sanity check-ins to both the caregiver and the person who’s sick. It involves grocery shopping and bill-paying and laundry, and a myriad of other things. So we need to find ways to share responsibilities and to delegate. Even family members who live far away can do many, many things to help.
Also, we need to lean into our friends who aren’t in the caregiving trenches with us. They can provide fun and necessary distractions, as well as a fresh perspective from time to time.
5. Ignore the “haters.”
Some people are going to have opinions—ones that don’t feel compassionate or charitable. Some will offer explanations for how we should be approaching caregiving when it comes to both our loved ones and how we’re integrating the caregiving into our own lives. And it’s going to be frustrating and infuriating as hell because this situation is already stressful and sad and emotional, and a lot of people won’t give us anything that feels like empathy.
Ignore the judge-y people. Just ignore them. We need to remove people from our lives who aren’t supportive, who think they know more about our life and experiences than we do, and who make us feel like sh*t. Period.
6. Simplify what you can.
Even if we typically prepare elaborate meals, we can find some recipes for quick, healthy meals and make those our go-to, except for one or two nights a week. We can also allow ourselves to order takeout more frequently if our budget allows that.
There are also ways to pare down our routine with quick but effective home workouts (Dame Helen Mirren stays in shape with these 12-minute workouts) for those of us who were once fitness freaks. Also, eliminate time-consuming grocery shopping with delivery or pickup.
I lean toward being a perfectionist, so I have adopted the mantra: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” ~ Unknown.
And that applies not only to little lifehacks, but this entire situation I find myself in, and if you’ve read this far, you probably find yourself in, too. Go easy on yourself. Walk the gentle path. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.