Most of us in caregiving roles, whether professionally or out of necessity, know we need to care for ourselves in addition to our clients or loved ones. But how can taking care of ourselves be effortless and enjoyable and not just more work? Caregivers are experts on how to make others feel good, and our wheelhouses are full of knowledge, so why isn’t it easy to apply all those techniques to ourselves? Why isn’t it easy for caregivers to be good self-caregivers as well? And, how can that change?
Caretakers are notoriously bad at being good to themselves. They lavish devotion and care on clients and family members with massages, baths, wonderful smelling lotions, perfect fitting incontinence products, healthy food, fresh air, and messages of love and kindness. But ask yourself, “When was the last time you did something nice for yourself?”
To generalize, caretakers are an under-cared-for and sometimes unhealthy bunch. Like the shoemaker whose children go without shoes, the caretaker often goes without care. This is clearly exemplified in studies of professions and being overweight, which is linked to a lack of self-care. People working in healthcare services, including nurses, rank among the most overweight in the United States according to a 2014 study by the CDC. Other studies of just nurses find around 55% are in the obese category. There is a reason for this and understanding it can help with your own self-care.
Let’s break things down into a couple of areas. First, understanding the nature of caregiving, the type of people who become caregivers, the rigors of the job, and burnout. This overview can help with perspective and contextualizing why caretakers struggle with their own care. Second, I will list some effective strategies to make self-care more doable, more enjoyable, and less like work.
The Culture of Caretaking
Caretakers, whether by choice or by circumstance, tend to be very giving and helpful people with the capacity to put others first. Caregiving literally means to “give care” which is the nature of the job. This translates into an expectation of a caregiver as selfless, attentive, and with a capacity to always focus on the other person. As we become good at our jobs, we learn to keep the needs of others in the forefront and our needs in the background. Sometimes those needs are so far in the background that they get forgotten and we become neglected. The more we give, and the more we disregard our own needs, the more our work is prized as selfless and exemplary.
Caretaking is extremely rigorous, both physically and mentally, and that takes a toll. I realize I am preaching to the choir here, but it helps to say it, to think about it. Incontinence is a good example. There is the lifting, the changing clothes, changing bedding, changing briefs or underwear, there is clean-up that can be exhausting and even more so if you are doing it repeatedly. Then add to that, the need to be gentle and kind no matter the mess, as if you actually love cleaning up someone’s else’s bottom. This is just one example on a large continuum of necessary caregiving tasks and although some duties take more energy than others, caregiving in general is simply hard work.
When we give, give, give as these jobs require, we start running on empty. To do the job well, literally necessitates filling yourself up in some capacity or risking burnout. A somewhat overused term, burnout, is a real thing where you can hit a wall and just become unable to continue. In a professional setting, you can theoretically be replaced, but as the caretaker of a loved one, this might not be so simple and you have a duty to guard against burnout or have a solid “plan B” for if you do.
A Changing Perspective
The question, “Are you taking care of yourself?” used to be reserved for therapy sessions and was not a public focus. We knew caregivers worked hard, but we didn’t really talk about who was taking care of them or even discuss terms like “self-care.” Someone might have observed that a lot of caretakers like nurses are overweight and just assumed they were too worn out to cook good food, exercise, or take care of themselves. But times are really changing, and we now know that we must both invest in our caregivers and encourage good self-care. Our caregivers are essential and if they are not taken care of, we won’t have any caregivers left. This mindset accounts for the onset of workshops and curriculum on “caring for the caregiver” that have sprung up in recent years.
To take care of the caregiver may require conscious effort. Here are some things that can help.
Know You Deserve It - There are many different ways you can move from little to no self-care, to a good self-care routine. You may need to start with an understanding of the importance of self-care and a feeling that you deserve it. This deserving in particular, can be motivated by being the best you can be for others, or simply knowing that you deserve care along with everyone else. For some, feeling like you are not important, can be a roadblock to taking care of yourself and it must be overcome if a routine is going to stick. Ask yourself, “Why don’t I take care of myself?” and dig deeper than the usual excuses of not enough time or being too tired.
Create a plan - Wherever you are starting from, self-care can always improve. Whether you do a lot or a little, or next to nothing at all, having a plan is how you will make progress and how you will reap the benefits of consistent good care.
I encourage people to start small because that generally equates to success. Maybe your plan is to take a short walk of ten minutes every morning or block out half an hour in the evening every other day to stretch and do yoga. Think doable, choose things you enjoy, and write it down.
Engage Others - A novel idea, but you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Self-care would imply care you give to yourself, but there is nothing that prevents you from enlisting the help of others. Maybe you strike a bargain with your spouse to trade massages once a week. Maybe you spring for a pedicure. How about scheduling a nature walk with a friend on a regular basis? We are more likely to follow through on things if we have another person involved, one we are accountable to.
Have Fun - This is so crucial to good self-care and ensuring it doesn’t feel like work. Ask yourself, “What do I really enjoy?” Then make a list. It might include a long soak in the tub, watching an hour of comedy on TV, dancing, doing crafts, or getting a facial. Ideally pick some things that are doable on a daily basis, your “downtime” activities, and things you might do less often. I love to hike and find it very restorative, but I can only manage it on weekends. Your self-care activities are best if they “take you away” from it all, meaning they are not part of your necessary routine, and they bring you some level of joy. The happy hormones excreted from doing activities you enjoy can counteract the stress of taking care of others.