It was summer, and we had recently found out my husband’s cancer had returned. We were back in the routine of constant doctor appointments, treatment decisions, and feeling fear and anxiety about what the future held. I was working full-time as I always had been, but the sleepless nights were beginning to wear on me. I was exhausted and a little resentful that this had become our life… again! Even though I was struggling, I kept thinking, “At least I don’t have cancer! That is so much harder.” So I just kept soldiering on and suffered in silence.
One Saturday afternoon during my child’s swim team practice, I had the realization that no one person’s pain is more important than another. We each have our own struggles in life, and it is important to pay attention to them. At that moment of realization, I saw I had made my husband’s struggle more important than my own. Yes, he was battling cancer. But I was struggling too. By not paying attention to myself, I was wearing thin, unable to show up in the way I wanted. I realized on that hot Saturday afternoon that I needed support too. I needed care too!
Self-care for the caregiver is just as important as caring for your loved one who is sick. It may not feel like it right now, but I hope by the end of this article, you’ll feel empowered to be the one who cares for the caregiver… you deserve it.
Why Is It So Important as a Caregiver to Care for Yourself First?
Self-care for the caregiver is essential because we all know you can’t pour from an empty cup. Being a caregiver requires mental, physical, and emotional energy. You will be called upon to be empathetic and understanding, strong and determined, and also hopeful and optimistic. At the same time, you will continue to take care of the household and the kids and maybe also hold down a job or run a business. Therefore, it’s essential to fill your cup first.
How Do I Prioritize Self-Care for the Caregiver, Really?
There is a lot of advice out there on self-care for the caregiver. Take care of your health, get good sleep, take a break…It’s good advice, yet a lot of caregivers still don’t follow it. I didn’t at first.
Why do most caregivers continue to put themselves last?
The reason is that most caregivers are thinking like I was before I had my swim practice realization. They are thinking, “My needs just aren’t as important as theirs. I’m not the one with cancer (or fill in the blank) after all!”
The following steps are not about the things you need to DO in order to care for yourself. I know you know what those are. The following steps are about the way you need to think and behave in order to practice true self-care for the caregiver.
1. Decide That Your Needs Matter
How you think about your own health and well-being matters. A lot. Are you someone who has always put everyone else’s needs above your own? Have you always sought to make everyone else happy before you even considered what you wanted? Has life to this point been a series of taking care of the kids, the spouse, the job, the house… and now you are adding caregiving to your list?
If this sounds all too familiar, then I want you to think of this time as an opportunity for you to grow in this area. Becoming a care partner will push your limits. And if you have never learned to value your own needs and prioritize your own health, then you will be susceptible to burnout and exhaustion and at a higher risk for developing your own health issues. This happens to caregivers often because they don’t know how to value their own needs. So they just continue to pour from their cup until there is literally nothing left.
Your needs matter, even and especially during this time. Becoming a caregiver is the exact time to get serious about learning when to put yourself first so you have the strength and energy to take care of others in your life.
2. Establish a Non-Negotiable
What is it that really matters to your mind, body, or soul? Is it lunch with a friend or your daily yoga class? Is it getting out for a walk each day or just having some time to yourself to read? Pick one thing that really matters to you and make it non-negotiable. This means you take time for it no matter what.
You can do this by asking for help from friends and family and telling your partner this is something you really need for your own well-being. Find creative ways to fit it in when people visit or your partner is at the hospital. The key is you prioritize it without guilt and without apology. You have to live your life, even now. This is your partner’s journey, and while you are on it with them, it doesn’t mean you have to vacate your own life.
3. Set Boundaries
Sometimes, things can become difficult. Disease creates a lot of stress. Stress for your partner who is trying to cope and stress for family members who are all making sense of this situation. Under stress, tempers rise, and people can become aggressive, angry, or sometimes even violent.
Under these circumstances, you may need to protect yourself physically or emotionally. This is where boundaries come in. When you set a boundary, it is not to control or change another person’s behavior; it is to protect yourself. When you set a boundary, you decide in advance what you will do when another person behaves in a certain way. For example, when your spouse gets angry and aggressive and starts yelling or breaking things, you decide to leave the room. If a family member starts yelling at you on the phone, you say, “I can talk to you right now like this. I’m hanging up.”
Often, in situations like that, we react to the emotions we are feeling and start yelling back, getting angry, etc. This often escalates the situation instead of calming it. By creating space in those volatile and difficult situations, you allow yourself time to regroup, and you give the other person time as well.
By creating a boundary, an action WE take when someone’s behavior is frightening or threatening, we protect ourselves physically or emotionally. We do this because we love them, not because we want to hurt them. And by enforcing our boundaries, we show love for ourselves.
When we don’t set boundaries, it can be easy for anger, resentment, and frustration to build in a relationship. This will create more distance when often what we want is to be closer and more connected. Boundaries are a way of caring for ourselves.
The Stronger You Are, the Stronger You Can Be for Them
Taking care of yourself when you are a caregiver makes you stronger. It gives you the resilience and patience you need so that you can be all the things you want to be for your family during this time: strong, positive, resilient, caring, and loving. So, filling your cup first is critical.
So, Who Cares for the Caregiver? You.
When your spouse has a serious illness, caring for yourself as the caregiver is your responsibility. And it can be challenging to create space–emotionally and physically–to take care of yourself. However, it’s essential. And one way you can do that is by working with a caregiver coach who provides support for you when caring for your spouse.
As a coach who has been a spousal caregiver, I understand that self-care for the caregiver starts in your mind with what you think about what you deserve during this time. If you need help navigating self-care on your caregiving journey, I am here for you.