An old adage says, “You can’t take care of others if you can’t take care of yourself.” We’ve all heard variations on this longstanding quote but the meaning is still the same – take care of yourself first. That was something my loved ones frequently reminded me about in 2012 when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I became her caregiver. At that time, self-care seemed selfish to me – how could I even think about putting my own needs and wants before hers when she was the one who was afflicted?
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with a health condition in 2014 that I fully understood the importance of taking care of myself first. When I got sick, my initial thought was of my mother and who would care for her if I no longer could. My sister reassured me that our mother would ALWAYS be cared for and that as a family, we were well-prepared and devoted to helping her through her journey. And then my big sister looked me dead in my eyes and said, “Now we have to focus on you!”
Putting me first was not an easy task, because I was always a ‘doer’ throughout my life both personally and professionally. It gives me personal joy to see others enriched in some way by my actions. Even if it means sacrificing on my end, to me it is simply a small price to pay. But I started to slowly realize that I had paid enough and it was time to stop being a lowly caregiver and start becoming an empowered care partner. Empowerment started with me, first. I learned that I needed to take care of myself emotionally, physically and socially.
For me, taking care of myself emotionally started with a spiritual awakening. I learned to start my days with a quiet meditation to center myself. Spending a few minutes in silent prayer and reflection reduces my stress, increases my happiness and helps me sleep better.
Taking care of myself physically meant making positive changes in my daily habits. When I experienced my own health challenges, it was a wake-up call. I bought some workout DVDs and began working out in my basement and taking walks during my lunch break. I also started eating right and getting eight hours of sleep at night. While these changes aren’t always easy to make, they made a huge difference in how I feel every day – which makes me a better caregiver for my mom.
Finally, I needed to take care of myself socially, so I created a ‘personal bucket’ list. For instance, when my mother was first diagnosed, I was so focused on her needs that I stopped going out with friends or participating in hobbies I enjoy. Now, my personal bucket list includes going out with friends at least once a month. This gives me something to look forward to and in the process, helps boost my self-confidence. I no longer feel isolated or lonely because I am getting more social interaction. I learned to put aside my guilt and take family and friends up on their offers to watch mom, as well as put aside my foolish pride in asking for help.
The one question every caregiver needs to ask themselves is – “what happens to my life once caregiving is over?” It’s not a question to answer and figure out after a loved one has made their final transition, but rather it requires planning and caring for YOU as a caregiver now. Making yourself your number one priority – and taking care of yourself emotionally, physically and socially – you’ll find you are a better caregiver and you are better prepared for whatever life hands you next.