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Caring for Yourself (Try Again)

Gretchen Heuring | 12.15.08


"Caregivers are told all the time that they must look after themselves. But in my experience knowing what you should do doesn’t mean you can actually do it. How do you carve out time for yourself if you have a job and/or children? And how can you use that time most restoratively?"


Jane Gross asks this question in her New York Times blog, The New Old Age. We know you have heard this before: Take care of yourself. It's truly hard to do when a beloved elder needs you to be there. When you have your own family, guilt comes from all directions.


When my mother became very ill, I lived thousands of miles away, had a very demanding job with lots of responsibility, and a family of my own. I flew to be there during her surgery, visiting with her when she was able, and spending some good quality time with my worried dad. It helped to know that my brothers lived nearby, though they were very busy running the small business they had taken over from my parents.


There were many phone calls and I used up all my vacation time traveling to see her when she moved into nursing care and then back home again. Mom seemed to be feeling better and in good spirits. She laughed often and told me her favorite stories. I sent gifts, a silk bed jacket, books, nail polish.


Always, my dad seemed strong and healthy, in fact I didn't even think about his health. He was able to arrange for nursing care for mom at home and he told me that meant he could get away now and then to visit a buddy or help my brothers with the business.


My brother called me on my cell phone. "You'd better come." He said. My brother was never much for words. I was even farther away, traveling on business. Another day went by before I could make arrangements. I phoned my dad and the nurse, who answered the phone, just said he wasn't there and took a message. I had just spoken to my him a couple of days before and he told me then that things were fine.


My dad died. He had become completely exhausted caring for my mother. He came down with pneumonia and died. He never left her side or took time for himself. He didn't arrange for a nurse to stay at night, and he was right there whenever my mom needed him. He barely slept.


My story repeats itself across the landscape of spouses and children caring for sick loved ones. The caregiver needs to take care.