By Dr. Tim Bartholow
Who's taking care of the caregiver?
Meet Ellen. She's in her 50s and married, with one son away at college. While her husband Joe is at work, Ellen cares for her live-in Mom who has dementia.
When Joe gets home from work they trade places. Except for a couple weekly visits from an occupational therapist, Ellen and Joe are responsible for Mom's care every day.
Self-care raises the level of care you give
We call these individuals, the "sandwich generation" because they support and/or care for their parents and children. Nearly half of middle-aged adults provide financial support to an aging parent and a child.
The support Ellen and Joe provide is financial, physical and emotional. Holding down a job, running errands, doing household chores, providing care… it isn't easy. It's not easy for the unplanned trip, the call in the middle of the night, the urgent need to go to the emergency room, the worry of being more than 50 miles away for more than a few hours. Caregivers would make no other choice, but it is exhausting. In the process, the caregiver often neglects his or her own self-care.
Ellen has decided to be the exception, and she is a good role-model for other sandwich gens out there. Every day, she remembers to take for SELF:
S - sleep
E - eat and exercise
L - laugh
F - family and friends
Be good to yourself
For starters, Ellen attends a support group for caregivers. There, she unloads some of her stress with folks who understand her situation. The group gives Ellen strategies on how to integrate simple self-care tips into her daily routine, like making a list of people who might assist in any way.
Once a week Ellen's sister stops by to make dinner and visit with Mom while Ellen and Joe go on a date. Ellen also found a community center where volunteers lead activities for seniors. Now three times a week Mom gets out of the house, while Ellen takes a 4-hour break to walk, meditate and focus on what Ellen needs. This kind of support is necessary for both of them if they want a sustainable patient-caregiver relationship.
Eat healthy, sleep and get annual medical checkups
Instead of relying on caffeine and candy bars to get through the day, Ellen snacks on fruit and veggies, and has balanced meals to give her the physical and mental stamina to manage whatever each day brings.
By the way, Ellen never skips an annual medical screening for herself, no matter what.
Buying tickets to a show or signing up for a class just isn't an option. Instead of getting frustrated by that limitation, Ellen has freed herself from the guilt of a spontaneous opportunity. "Time is precious," she says. When surprise visitors stop by to see Mom, Ellen takes a welcome mid-afternoon nap or reads a favorite book. But this doesn't keep her from needing a periodic scheduled time away for a movie.
"If I'm feeling healthy and positive, I can give my Mom better physical and emotional care. Taking care of myself is a gift that keeps on giving," she says.
Give encouragement to a caregiver
If you know someone who is caregiving, don't wait for them to ask for help-they often don't feel like they can. Inquiring how they are, giving a quick hug, or offering a cup of coffee can be just the encouragement they need. I have witnessed neighbors offer kindnesses that were surprisingly impactful at a time of caregiver stress, and I am deeply humbled by reflecting, "What if they had not reached out?"
My next two blogs will look at preauthorization issues and the real cost of common drugs.
Till then, take good care of yourself (so you can care for others),
Dr. Tim Bartholow is the WEA Trust's Chief Medical Officer. Prior to joining the Trust in 2014, Dr. Bartholow was the CMO for the Wisconsin Medical Society for 6years and a practicing physician for 16 years.