If you’ve followed my writing much you know that I’ve been involved in caring for my elderly parents for the last 8 years or so. It started with my mother, Lois, who died in 2011 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. Mom was fairly mobile and my Dad sort of looked after her on his own until she broke her hip in August of 2009. After a short stay in a local nursing home and multiple infections that nearly ended her life, we moved her back to my parents’ house and cared for her ourselves. Mom required 24-hour care, which was accomplished by the luck of my fairly mobile job and mostly because of my cousin who moved to the farm to help.
Although we had some support from in-home health care and later a local hospice, we did most everything ourselves. Mom couldn’t walk, eat or take care of herself in any manner by that time. We had to do everything. It was an all-encompassing task that pushed all of us to our limits sometimes. During that time, Dad was diagnosed with early Parkinson’s disease. After Mom died, he did OK on his own for a while, but eventually, the tremors became more pronounced. His reflexes were diminishing and he was slowing down – a lot. Then in the spring of 2014, he started experiencing severe back pain which turned out to be a series of major kidney stones. After a week of hospitalization, the stones were removed and my brother, sister and I decided it was time for him to retire from the family business.
It was tough. While my sister insisted she was not going to help (that takes more explanation than I care to load onto this blog), my brother and I took on the task of having someone with him 24/7. My brother stayed with him at night, and me during the day, for a whole year. In the middle of the second year, my brother became ill with a life-threatening brain infection and could no longer help. By this time, Dad was fine on his own at night, when he mostly slept, and for brief periods during the day. I continued to do the daytime care on my own except for times when I had to work and hired a retired nurse, who was a friend of the family, to help us a couple of days a week.
I tell you all of this so you have a grasp of how hard it was to make the decision to do something that I genuinely considered very selfish at first. It was really hard to justify spending an hour in the gym or on the bike when I should have been there with Dad. It’s hard enough to carve out your own free time when you’re a caregiver and running a business and working for clients and trying to manage two households, all at once. But to do something that seemed, at least to me and on the surface, as frivolous, it was hard to wrap my head around the fact that it was not only “OK,” but it was necessary.
I had the same problem while caring for my mother. I would ignore my own meals and self-care in favor of putting her first. I guess we all do that to some extent. I know she did it for me more times than I would be able to count. But I finally decided, if I were to be any help to her, I had to at least make sure my basic needs were met – food, sleep, and so on. I had to come to the same realization with Dad. When my brother got sick, I spent a year trying to figure out how to handle everything with Dad on my own and that really drove it all to the surface – I had to do something to keep myself healthier for the long haul; not just for me but for all of them as well.
So, in my head, I settled on the analogy of the airline safety instructions. On a commercial airliner, passengers, in the event of cabin decompression, are instructed to place oxygen masks on themselves before assisting other people, even though that’s not usually someone’s first instinct, particularly parents or other family members. The reason is simple, if you aren’t safe and breathing first, you can’t help anyone else. Using the same concept, I can’t help my family if I’m in constant pain or sick or exhausted. With that, my health and fitness became a priority. I had a solid rationale, even though I still feel guilty sometimes. I know better, though and it passes quickly every time I’m able to lift Dad or move his wheelchair or help him with a shower and I’m not tired or winded from the exertion. It all makes sense now. And it’s a good thing because Dad’s disease is progressing, although we have him as healthy and well cared for as possible.
The efforts are also therapeutic for me. My riding and workouts give me time to think, decompress and let my mind and emotions have a little “time off,” for whatever that is worth. And I have learned some physical education that has been applicable to helping Dad’s disabilities, which is helping me to keep him moving better. Everyone wins.
So, from here on, I have to make this a priority. It’s important to keep myself up and running or I can’t help anyone else. I’m carrying a lot on my shoulders, or so I’m told, but if I fall apart I won’t be able to so I have to keep this up. My humble advice to you, if you’re a caregiver, and your physical and mental health are suffering, you have to find a way to give yourself that time to take care of yourself. I know, it’s not our first instinct, but we have to do it this way or our charges will suffer for it. If you are doing this alone, who will help if you go down?