By the nature of my profession, I’m a caregiver. While I have professional experience in care giving, I do have personal experience as well. I have children and know what it means to care for their safety, health and well being, but I have, thankfully, yet to experience what it feels like to provide 24/7 care for the safety, health and well being of my parents. My experience with caring for an adult relative is limited to some short term care for my grandfather while he was bed-ridden for a couple of months in the home of my parents shortly before he died. Sure I assisted him with eating, staying comfortable and even changing diapers from time to time, but his regular care was really on the shoulders of my parents – I guess my role was more of the way grandparents relate toward grandchildren: love them and then give them back to the parents when they’re tired of participating. So it’s safe to say that I’m no expert in understanding the complex emotions of caring for one’s aging parents full time, yet I believe that I have understanding in how to be a care giver and maintain your own well being. That’s what I hope to help you with in this blog posting.
Many care givers report feeling overwhelmed by burnout after a while. While it might be tempting to say that this is only natural, I would contend that burnout doesn’t have to be the norm. Burnout comes from the feeling of being depleted of your personal energy which prevents you from to continuing on. Burnout implies that you’ve taken your accumulated personal energy and expended it on the person you are caring for. I have found that this is a mistake to care for someone in this way. Your energy is for you. In order to care for another for any length of time, you need to become aware of and enhance your ability to channel and direct the life energy that exists freely in nature toward the person you are caring for, without tapping into your own store of life energy.
Let me explain it this way. Someone’s house is burning, so the fire department is called and the fire truck arrives (that’s you, the caregiver). On the fire truck, there’s a tank of water (your personal energy). But the tank on the truck can only hold 500 gallons of water, not nearly enough to put the house fire out. It might be enough to get the first hose line filled with water and make a start on the attack, but the house will keep burning and the water on the truck will run out unless a bigger source of water is tapped. That’s what happens when someone feels burnout – they’ve used up their 500 gallons. The fire department knows this so they’ve conveniently placed fire hydrants through out the town to provide them with that limitless supply of water (the life energy in nature). So the firefighters connect the truck to the fire hydrant and then water flows and flows, never even drawing on the 500 gallons of water that came with the truck! After some time and effort, the fire is put out.
At this point you might be thinking, I didn’t even know that I could do this let alone know where to find a fire hydrant to plug into. Where do I start? The first step is in developing a daily practice of centering, grounding, being in the moment or what ever you want to call it. It is in this daily practice that you become familiar with your energy and sensing the energy that exists all around you. Some people experience this energy as a shiver, or an electrical tingle, or a buzz – it’s unique to you and with regular practice you’ll discover how it feels for you. But more importantly, you’ll begin to recognize what is your energy and what is the energy of another. This also applies to knowing what you are feeling emotionally and recognizing when you are being influenced by the emotion of another. This is important in care giving because while you are caring for another, your emotional and energetic fields can easily become entangled with the person you are caring for. When you are finished providing care, you need to be able to untangle your energy from the other so that you finish with the energy you started (a full tank of water). Many care givers unknowingly leave some or all of their energy with the person they are caring for and even worse, may at times take some of the energy of the other person with them! It’s important to start and finish your day with a clean emotional and energetic field in order to preserve your own health.
You’ll have to find your own way to discovering how your energy feels to you. This process is what can be described as spirituality, which is your relationship to the divine (in what ever form that means to you). You might find that spiritual connection through your religious practice, yoga, exercise, meditation, or something like mindfulness based stress reduction. It’ll be unique to you and you are the only one who can say what is the correct avenue to explore it. But I encourage you to begin exploring today, because if you are in the middle of caring for an elderly parent you need it now more than ever. If you are fortunate enough not to need to provide care to your parents, begin your practice now and practice, practice, practice. You’ll likely need it at sometime in the future.
Discovering your spiritual connection requires time-off from providing care. If you are presently caring for someone, that may seem like a “Catch-22”. That’s why it’s important that as a care giver you have a support network that can step in to relieve you so you can restore yourself. Back to the fire truck example, even if your tank stays full, you still need to change out the hoses and clean the dirt off the truck from time to time so it can function flawlessly. Look at it this way. When you are at the beach, there is a lifeguard on the stand watching over you while you swim, ready to dive into the crashing surf and pull you out at a moment’s notice if you get into trouble. Well, at some point that life guard had to train to learn the skills of saving people from the water. That lifeguard had to exercise and physically condition him/herself to be capable in the physical challenges of the job. They had to get plenty of rest the night before so they are ready at a moments notice. All of this had to happen when they are not on the lifeguard stand, which means while they were training and conditioning and sleeping, someone else had to be on the lifeguard stand! The lifeguard has a support network so that while they are restoring themselves, someone else is on duty and when they are on duty the other guard is training, conditioning and sleeping. The same goes for you as a care giver. You can’t be on the guard stand 24/7. That’s the fact that you’ll have to accept for yourself. The quality of your care giving will suffer if you try to stay on duty all of the time.
Finally (and I believe that this is the most difficult part for most), is that you can’t be vested in the outcome. The firefighter knows that he/she didn’t start the fire, they are there to help put it out and whether they help or not the fire will go out at some point. As for caring for an aging parent, care giving involves recognizing that it’s not about me as a caregiver. As a caregiver, I can only provide the best care within the limits of my ability and have to recognize that my ability is not a reflection on my level of love or respect for the person I am caring for. The caregiver needs to remember that they didn’t create the condition that the person they are caring for is experiencing, but they are there to help and whether they help or not the situation will end at some point. There is also no shame in calling for reinforcements maybe with more skilled care on site or even in a facility that can provide better care than you are able to. Sometimes making that decision is the best care you can provide someone.
Below are some other resources that you might find useful in helping you maintain a balance for yourself and your own life while providing care for another. My best wishes in your efforts.
– Paul Kulpinski, LMT