Whether caring for an elderly parent or a sick child, or raising a relative's child, caregivers often put their own needs last.
"Unfortunately, caring for yourself is the first thing to go," said Katie Nikzad-Terhune, a family therapist at Beaumont Behavioral Health in Lexington. Often, caregivers are so busy tending to others and think they can't give skimp on those responsibilities, so they don't take time to care for themselves. "The one thing we let go of is the things we do for ourselves," she said.
But the best thing for all involved is to make sure the caregiver is taken care of. Remember the instructions that are given on commercial airliners about oxygen masks: If there is a loss of cabin pressure, first take the oxygen yourself so you can help your child. The same principle applies to caregiving.
Feeling the need to control an out-of- control situation can lead caregivers to abandon themselves, she said. They think they can make a bad situation better if they just do more — of something. But "it's necessary to separate being powerless over a situation and finding the best way to cope with it," Nikzad-Terhune said.
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Coming to that realization and doing something about it is "probably easier said than done," said Sherri Weisenfluh, a clinical officer for counseling at Hospice of the Bluegrass.
The struggle is not the same for everyone, she said. Some people are naturally good at caregiving and find a balance and rhythm. Others throw themselves wholeheartedly into the role but might need a reminder from friends, family or their physicians to take care of themselves.
"It's not really until it catches up with people that they start to pay attention," she said. The things that easily slip off the caregiver's radar are eating properly and getting enough sleep. Finding other ways to get comfort and joy are important, too.
Caring for yourself doesn't have to mean a weekend at the spa. It can be as simple as a walk in the park, taking care of your plants on a sunny day, cooking a meal because it's something you want to eat or seeing a movie because it will make you laugh or cry.
"Self-care is going to feel uncomfortable in the beginning," Nikzad-Terhune said. But that's to be expected. There is not necessarily a correct way to feel or behave when you find yourself in a caregiver's role. Frustration and fear can go hand in hand with the joy and satisfaction of being able to help another.
What can others do to help caregivers?
First, be prepared for them to say they don't need help. Second, instead of saying, "Is there anything that you need?," offer to do something specific. People might not know what they really need. If they are caring for someone who requires round-the-clock attention, offer to come by so they can take an extra-long shower and have some time to themselves. Say, "I'll bring dinner over on Tuesday or Wednesday," or seek information about resources that might be helpful to them and pass it along, Weisenfluh said.
Help the caregiver connect with people in a similar situation, Nikzad-Terhune suggested. Hearing about how other people cope with the same kinds of problems is the easiest way to feel that you are not alone in your struggle. It also can help you see the good to come out of a situation.
Mary Knight of Lexington was what she calls a "reluctant caregiver" when she was asked to care for her stepdaughter Tiffany while Tiffany recovered from a kidney transplant. Knight chronicles her journey in a story in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers (Chicken Soup for the Soul, $14.95).
When she learned that Tiffany would be coming to stay with her, "I was afraid of what I could have to give up in my own life. It was a precarious situation," she said.
Knight asked God to help her, and she said she felt it happen. That does not mean there weren't obstacles. There were plenty. But it showed Knight how much adversity she could handle by seeing the grace of the sick teen in her home, she said.
"Opening my heart was how I was caring for myself," she said.
It also opened her up to the idea that she could, and would, really commit to caring for someone, and that has helped her reach out more to others, she said. That process includes writing the story about her time with Tiffany, who died in 2011.
In the end, she said, it's important to remember that "there are a whole lot of people going through the same struggles that you are."