September 9, 2010

Caring for the Caregiver; it's more than a cheezy saying...

This post is dedicated to my dear friend (you know who you are) who always looks fabulous, always greets me with a smile, and always has some crazy story to tell....Unfortunately, this wasn't the case as I ran into her at the gym yesterday. She's going through a tough time at the moment and one that many other people are experiencing. She is taking care of an ill parent and, although the prognosis is positive, it is kicking her tight little aerobicized  ass to the curb..

Caregiving is becoming the topic of discussion as we age (and so do our parents).  It isn't uncommon these days to have the 30 - 40 something taking care of their kids AND their parent's needs leaving them with nothing for themselves.  As a result, stress levels are up, divorce rates are up, we are sleeping less, and calling in sick more...and don't get me started on the lack of support from the government.

I was kinda lucky (although lucky is a weird way to put it) that I went through my caregiving stage when I was 24.  The week before my wedding day, I was sitting around a table at the Eric Martin Pavilion in Victoria, with my dad at the head of the table being told that he has been diagnosed with a form of dementia (Pick's Disease) and I would be his primary caregiver. I say what????????

From 24 - 32 I went through hell, divorce, undergraduate school, 2am phone calls demanding me to pick him up cause "he was ready", and drives through the city looking for him when he went missing. Finally, the day came to pack up his life (and sell it) and place him in an emergency placement. Remember the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"? Um...ya... From that day on, it was just a steady decline and a huge load of guilt on me for doing it.  I could write a book on my experiences, but I came out stronger, wiser, and appreciative of the experience (after a ton of therapy, chocolate, red wine, and other addictions).

The stress of caregiving is huge and can accumulate without notice until we are sobbing in the fetal position under our desk at work.  Before it gets to this point, I highly recommend a few preventative measures for your own health (and the health of those around you).

1. Be sure to get your sleep, eat as best you can, and get out for a walk. It is important to keep your physical health up so you have the energy to get the job done.
2. Be sure to talk to others about your stress. Whether you choose a therapist or a friend, you HAVE to talk and seek support. You are not alone and there are many others who have either gone through what you are going through or have the necessary knowledge to support you.
3. Understand that you cannot be everything to everyone. Put down the red cape, realize you are human, and ask for help when you need it.
4. Understand that you may need to disengage from the workplace. If you are fortunate enough to have benefits, take advantage of them. Take time off, get a massage, do a spa day as this is THE TIME (if there was any) to indulge yourself.
5. Forgive yourself for the mistakes you will make, for the outbursts you may have, and for the things you may say to your parent when you are at your worst. Again, you are human and these things will happen. Acknowledge them and move on.
6. Take advantage of the society's caregiver assistance program. Each society will either have one or know of one in your community (Cancer Society, Alzheimer's Society, etc.).
7. Take it one day at a time without projecting into the future. One of my favorite mantra's when things are really bad is "This isn't my future, it is only my present." 
8. You are not in control of this, the disease is. That is the hardest to grasp but you can't control the outcome. You can only do the best you can with what you have.
9. I highly recommend finding or strengthening your spiritual health. Whether you come from religion, or walk the woods, or practice meditation, now is the time to do this on a daily basis. Those that have a higher sense of spirituality are able to get through the tough times healthier than those who don't.
10. Keep your sense of humour intact. You will need it when it gets really bad. I remember the heart-break as I (we; my husband, sister, brother-in-law) were being chased by my dad down the hall of the mental hospital - after having to leave him the first day - and going to a restaurant to drink and joke about the experience. We laughed so hard that day as a way to deal. It's important to laugh.

So to my friend, I say...hang on. It will soon be a memory and one that you can learn from. You have what it takes to get through and, when you are ready, I will take you out and buy you the biggest glass of red wine your pretty little eyes have seen!


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