Being a caregiver can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. You are giving so much of yourself, your time, and your energy to the person you are taking care of. Whether it’s someone with a disability, a disease, or someone who can’t take care of themselves, caregivers can lose themselves in the other person’s needs. It is very easy to forget entirely about your own needs, which puts your complete health at risk.
We as humans find value in helping other people and giving service, and giving service raises our energy and capacity to get beyond ourselves. But when you give too much service, you’re not honoring, respecting, or valuing yourself. You end up draining your energy to the point that you are helpful to no one. It’s like when you are on an airplane and the flight attendant instructs you to put on your own oxygen mask first before you help others. You must care for yourself, first.
In order to care for themselves, caregivers need to find value in themselves. They need to take the time to reset, regenerate, and revive their mental, physical, and emotional health so they can care for others the way they hope to. Fortunately, there are several ways to do that, and it starts with accepting help from others.
Let People Help You
Taking care of my husband while he quickly deteriorated from cancer was draining for me in every possible way, and I did nothing to care for myself. The moment I realized that something needed to change was when I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, cucumbers in one hand and carrots in the other, and I didn’t know what to do with them. The idea of putting them together in some way never even crossed my mind. I was so exhausted that even a salad was too difficult. I was so far gone. I needed help.
At this point, our local ecclesiastical leader, the Bishop, asked how I was doing. I told him I was fine with a pasted-on smile. But he read through that instantly. He said, “I will come over and stay with your husband tonight.” And so he did. He came at 10 pm and stayed overnight with my husband, and I got eight hours of sleep that night. After that, the Bishop instituted a man from our church to come over and stay every other night with my husband. That way, I was able to get a full night’s rest.
As a fellow caregiver, I cannot stress the importance of having other people that you can reach out to for help, even if it is just to talk and have some contact with another human. Most people have somebody that they can depend on, and for me it was my Bishop who said, “Elaine, you need help. You can’t do this all by yourself.” You need that someone in your life to help you see what you cannot, to help you make the tough decisions, to express your emotions to get that mental, physical, and emotional release.
Do Things That Bring You Joy
Journaling was the most important thing that I did for myself as I cared for my husband. I made sure, even when it was difficult because I was exhausted, to write even the shortest entry every day. When you journal through your caregiving, you can put your feelings in there, how frustrated or how angry you are that this is happening, or how tired you are. A journal is a safe place to release your emotions when you don’t have any other place to express them or vent.
The companionship of music has also been a constant outlet for me. When I find that I am running on empty or am in need of doing something that brings me joy, I run to the piano and play particularly loud music—and sometimes I sing just as loudly. Reading is another activity that helps me to care for myself.
As long as I have a book that’s interesting, something to look forward to, I feel excited and engaged.
For some, it might be repotting plants in your house. For some people, it may be watching TV, doing a puzzle, or going out to lunch with a friend. Whatever activity it is, it needs to be something that you look forward to doing, something that excites you, something that brings you joy and is fulfilling to you. Some people get so caught up in helping others that their service defines them. Let’s not forget that each of us is precious and important just the way we are, whether or not we are serving every minute of every day.
Your Needs Matter Too
When you are a caregiver, you are so busy taking care of other people that, frankly, you just don’t care about yourself. You’re not having social experiences or doing even small things that bring you joy. And you need both to increase your energy and revive your spirit.
Have a group of people that you can rely on, that you can trust your emotions with or perhaps will run errands for you. Remain humble and ask for help when you need it. It’s saying, “I don’t know everything. I can’t handle everything myself.” Open yourself up, be vulnerable, allow others into your life.
And remember to find that something that feeds you. As my daughter said, “Find little pockets of happiness in each day.” You will find yourself regenerated and renewed, able to take better care of your loved one, and happier because of it.
If you hope to continue to be of service to others, you must first remember that your needs matter too.
For more advice on how to take time for self-care, you can find Scott’s Choice: Letting Go, Letting God on Amazon.
Elaine Brewster is a personal health and wellness advocate in the truest form: after walking by her husband’s side during cancer, she saw that physical aspects were just one small part of our whole well-being as humans. Her best-selling book shares raw, real, and relatable conversations about chronic illness, self-care for caretakers, grieving, spiritual and emotional well-being, and the need for a more proactive + holistic approach to health.