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Do your New Year's plans include you?

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

One of the key ingredients to being a caregiver seems to be the ability to forget our own needs. While unselfishness is a generally a virtue, too much unselfishness can turn on us. Caregivers need to make it a point to learn to care about themselves, not just for themselves but for everyone. If you can't make changes for yourself, do it for your loved one. You want to stay around to continue being the fantastic caregiver you are.

A well publicized statistic that puts the risk of death for caregivers at approximately 30 percent should wake us up. The fact that caregiver depression is one of the most talked about topics in elder care should wake us up. Unfortunately, most of us won't "wake up" until we actually get sick.

Auto-immune disorders, undiagnosed cancers, depression, unhealthy weight, high blood pressure - the list goes on. Caregivers are at high risk for these diseases and more.

Can We Avoid Some Pitfalls?

Maybe we can. Maybe we can avoid becoming a sick caregiver if we learn early enough that taking care of ourselves is taking care of the care receiver as well. While most of us would be better off practicing self-care from the start of our caregiving career, we can learn to make changes, even if that means making our care receiver less than perfectly happy, for a time.

I was known for spoiling the elders in my care, simply because I knew no other way. I felt they were so vulnerable that anything I could do to make their lives easier was worth any sacrifice I needed to make. The problem was, there were many of them, and only one of me. I was also the mother of growing children, one of whom had chronic health problems. Talk about a set up!

Life did take me down a road that forced me to make some changes. While caregiving still ruled my life, I had to make changes that made my elders less than happy with me at times. I simply couldn't spend as much time meeting each of their needs as I had in the past. I had other obligations, and one of those was to keep myself from collapsing in exhaustion and/or illness.

I still struggle to find a balance in caring for vulnerable loved ones. I still need to remind myself that I, too, have needs. Can we, together, make some New Year's plans to include ourselves in a better year?

Can a Fresh New Year Bring a Fresh Start?

Let's try. Here are some ways I can see to trim a few corners during 2011:

  • Drop the guilt. In my view, unearned guilt on the part of caregivers because we can't do everything perfectly is one of our biggest risks to our mental, and even physical, health.
  • Not one person on earth can guess the needs of another person perfectly, every time. Nor can we fix what is wrong, so that our loved one with a disease, or just run-of-the-mill aging difficulties, can get younger or totally well. We do our best, but even our best can't fix everyone's problems. So, let's learn to cut ourselves some slack.
  • All work and no play make Jack/Jill and dull boy/girl. Remember that one from your childhood? It's true you know. I'm guilty of all work, no play. So now, I'm going to try to have some fun. Can you do the same? That may mean hiring someone to care for your loved one, but you may find you and your loved one are better off after you've had a break. Fun could mean a movie with friends or a solitary walk in the new fallen snow. Anything counts, if it's something you enjoy.
  • Learn to say no. There are countless organizations that are worthy of our help. There are family members who would love to have us to do just a little more. Our employer may be very happy to have us "go the extra mile." But can we? Take time to think through every request and only say yes to those you truly can fulfill without hurting your own health and wellbeing.
  • Get outside help before you hit a new energy low. Exhaustion is a symptom that we are doing too much and/or not getting enough rest or relaxation. Learn to take your own emotional temperature. Know when to ask for help from family members, religious organizations, social services or care agencies. In-home care agencies can be fantastic, because they are so flexible. They cost money, but so does getting sick.
  • Seek professional help if you are depressed for any length of time. If you have friends or family members who have voiced concerns that you may be depressed, see your doctor. It's important to get a professional opinion if there's even a chance you are clinically depressed.

Ignore any New Year's resolutions for self-improvement, including these suggestions, unless they make you happier and your life easier. I don't have as many caregiving responsibilities as I once did, but I still have some. I'm going to make it a point to read this list of suggestions from time to time and see if I'm living up to my own advice.

Happiness means different things to different people, and only we can know what "happy" means to us. Do try, though, to find ways to include yourself in your resolutions to make next year a happier year. You deserve just as much care as your loved ones do.