Cancer Caregiving 101: Take Care of Yourself and Prevent Caregiver Burnout
“Now you must realize,” the doctor straightened the papers into the already thick folder as he finished summarizing the diagnosis, treatment protocol and prognosis, “with a best-case scenario, we’re in for a long haul. You two must take care of yourselves, too. This is not easy on parents, either, and you can’t let yourselves get run down.”
The nurse bustled into the room, loaded with scary looking objects which she unloaded in the room’s small bathroom. “So, you cannot touch this hat in the toilet, we can’t have his samples contaminated. Also, be sure you don’t let any urine touch you when you help your little guy go – because it will burn a hole in your skin.” There followed some more directions of what not to touch in the room and what not to do and what I needed to help Andrew with and what I needed to remember. As she breezed back out the door, having set these little traps all over the room, she paused in the doorway, “Mrs. Bovee, you need to remember to take care of yourself through this…this will be a long, tough road.”
After a two-week stint in the hospital with a feverish and neutropenic boy, I was home, frantically trying to recuperate the family from separation, restore the house from chaos and prevent the laundry piles from taking over the world. As I sorted and started a load, a neighbor followed me from washing machine to dryer, not helping, but faithfully entreating me that I needed to “take care of yourself! Carol, you are just working too hard! You need to let go!”
I stumbled along beside the gurney as we returned from the spinal tap, wiping my tired eyes and unsuccessfully hiding a yawn behind my hand. The nurse, pushing a dopey Andrew, smiled sympathetically at me. “Carol, I hope you’re taking care of yourself. We see so many parents pushing so hard. You’ve got to take time out. Don’t forget you’ll need to recharge your batteries too.”
We received that advice throughout Andrew’s treatment. “You parents need to take care of yourselves too.” “Remember that you can help your boy best if you’re taking care of yourself too.” “Take some time for you!”
Laudable recommendations from caring souls.
“Don’t lift that boy – he’s too heavy for your back!” – OK, but he’s four, sick to his stomach, neutropenic, tired…I’m supposed to tell him he’s on his own?
“Don’t worry about the housework, take care of yourself.” – OK, but I cannot have a sick boy around dirt…is someone going to clean it for me?
“Make sure you eat regular and healthy meals!” – Ok. But the procedures are always during breakfast time, recuperation through lunch, driving through supper and falling into bed. When was I supposed to eat? And what in the world is a ‘regular time’?
The job needs to be kept, the house needs to be clean, the kids need to be loved, the meals need to be fixed, the sick one needs to be cared for – when, exactly, was I supposed to “take care of me”?
Truly, all I could concentrate on, throughout my son’s illness, was him! It wasn’t until it was too late, and I was in trouble, that I realized what I had done to myself. So the question I hear, from so many caregivers, is this:
HOW do I take care of myself, when my primary job is to take care of him/her? (tweet this)
I’m probably the last person to take advice from, as I did not necessarily do it right. On the other hand, maybe I’m a good person to listen to—I can honestly look back over my journey and say that there are things I would do no differently even if I could have known exactly what I know now. I would still give 150% to my child and my family.
However, there are some things that I wish I could go back and change, or do better:
1. Delegate the little things as much as you can: you cannot delegate the worry, no one else can carry your pain and your patient might not want you to delegate personal care. So delegate the windows being washed, the lawn getting mown, handing someone your money and your shopping list, etc. Delegate as much as you can. Sometimes that means swallowing your pride, but it might help you avoid swallowing medication later! ☺
2. Make lists. If someone offers to help – have a list ready of things they might be able to help with. If you have nothing you can think of right that moment (I remember someone offering to help while we were waiting for Andrew to come out of a procedure – nice, but not where my brain was right that moment), then write their offer down and get contact information and ask if you could call on them sometimes.
3. Ask. Don’t be afraid to call your pastor or a neighbor or a co-worker and let him/her know of a need. A lot of people think we caregivers have it all under control and don’t think to even ask if there’s a need. But many would help if they knew of a need. One person said to me, “It’s OK to allow someone else to have the blessing of helping you.” I had never thought about it that way before, and that was releasing to me.
4. Be willing to let go: sometimes, we caregivers think we need to be superman and wonder woman all rolled into one. We can’t. Or maybe, like in my case, I could for a while, but sustaining that after a while becomes impossible. Take the help that’s offered. And also let go of how that help is done. It might not measure up to your standards – but it will probably work!
5. Search out quiet moments. The days of caregiving are often busy and hectic, and when they are quiet, they can be scary. Grab moments of quiet to journal or to process some of what’s been going on. Take those moments to evaluate how you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Is it time to get some help? Do you need to find someone to talk to?
6. Expect less of yourself. This one has nothing to do with others’ helping, and everything to do with you deciding that it might be OK if you don’t get things done. Maybe you need to say no to some things you used to do. A caregiver has to re-examine priorities; and in that re-examination, one of those priorities has to be you. Your sanity, your health, your ability to keep on going.
What ways have you found to take care of yourself?