By Karen Bromberg
As family caregivers, we give so much. Don’t we?
We run with our loved ones to their doctor’s appointments. We help them with their shopping and with their cooking. We may help them clean their homes and we may help them balance their checkbooks.
If their physical or mental condition deteriorates, we may move them into our homes so that we can better take care of them.
We may decide to get someone into the house to help feed them, change their clothes and/or help them with their bathroom needs; or we may decide to take care of those tasks ourselves.
We do so many things for so many people throughout the course of a day: our spouses, our children, our jobs, the person/people we care for. We are taking care of so many things for so many people; but tell me, who’s there to take care of us, the family caregivers?
Selflessness vs. Selfishness
According to Dictionary.com, being selfless (or selflessness) is “having little or no concern for oneself, especially with regard to fame, position, money, etc.” whereby being selfish, or selfishness, (also according to Dictionary.com,) is being “1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with ones’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.” and “2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself.”
Given these definitions, it’s pretty clear which category family caregiving falls into and the stats prove that out. According to AARP’s 2015 Caregiving in The U.S. “Approximately 34.2 million Americans have provided unpaid care to an adult age 50 or older in the prior 12 months.”
There are family caregivers who regularly find themselves in debt and I’m not talking about a little debt. I’m talking about thousands of dollars worth of debt (my husband and I were five thousand dollars in debt and we got off cheaply!)
What about those caregivers who have to regularly take time off from work to run with their care recipients for doctors’ appointments or those caregivers who are laid off from their jobs because of their caregiving responsibilities? It’s a known fact that family caregivers are at risk for health problems of their own because they don’t take the time to eat properly, rest properly or go to their own doctors for a checkup.
From my experience having been a family caregiver and observing other family caregivers, if asked “Do you consider yourself to be selfish or selfless” most wouldn’t know. Oh, they might cite examples of times they behaved selflessly but then immediately turn around and cite the same amount of examples of them being selfish. “Like the time my mother wanted me to come up to the nursing home to visit but instead I decided to go to the movies” or “the time we had to pick my father up but we decided instead of going the more direct route, we’d take the round about one to give us a few extra minutes to ourselves.” Then there’s the daughter who, against her mother’s wishes, brings her mother to respite care one afternoon a week just so she could have “a little quiet time.”
We get so good at giving to everyone else: our spouses, our children, our jobs, our care recipients, that we forget to give to ourselves. We hold ourselves to such “high standards” that if we do ANYTHING for ourselves, anything, we think we’re being selfish.
It’s like caregiving is an all-or-nothing proposition, like if I give (even a little) to me, it means I can’t give to you and vice versa but that’s not true. By all means, do the things you need to for your care recipient. They are relying on you, then (making sure that your caregiving recipient is safe) go ahead and do what you need to to keep yourself grounded. Maybe get into a routine of doing something just for you. Perhaps first thing in the morning before anyone else gets up. Have some quiet, alone time if that’s your thing.
You see, the problem is, as I see it, it isn’t that we give to ourselves but that we forget the above definitions of what it means to be selfish or selfless, or rather we’re getting them confused. We’re not selfish if we decide to go to the movies one day instead of visiting Mother and we’re not selfless if we choose (one time) to see Mother instead of going to the movies.
There has to be a balance.
- The instructions given on an airplane. Do you recall what they are? My guess is not. Most of us are busy reading our books or magazines, waiting impatiently for the TV to be turned on, to pay much attention. I’m not an exception. Occasionally I do listen and what I hear is (and I’m paraphrasing here, make sure to put your oxygen mask over your nose and make sure there’s a flow of air before you try helping anyone else. The reason they say that? It’s because if you become oxygen deprived, you’re not going to be able to be of help to anyone.
- The way the heart pumps blood. Those who have taken human physiology and anatomy might remember that the heart is made up of four chambers; the upper ones receiving blood from the body and lungs; the lower ones pumping the blood to the body and lungs and an artery that feeds the heart first. That’s right. The heart, which gives nourishment to the rest of our body, makes sure to feed itself first.
So what does that tell us?
For one thing, it tells that we must give to ourselves, okay maybe not before anyone else and maybe not all the time, like the heart does, but perhaps some of the time. It also tells us that giving to ourselves is not selfish at all but in fact a necessary part of life. We have to give to ourselves as well as to the ones we’re caring for, at least once in a while, because if we don’t we’ll end up getting sick and if we get sick, who will be there to care for our loved ones?
It’s important that we keep a balanced, healthy life (or as least as balanced and healthy a life as a family caregiver’s life can get). I mean, we don’t expect to be able to drive a car when there’s no gas in the tank? So how can we expect to effectively give to others over a long period of time if we don’t occasionally recharge our own batteries?
What’s the adage? “You can’t give from an empty cup.”
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Karen Bromberg is the founder of Helpyouthru.com. She is a certified yoga instructor and a certified caregiving consultant. If you’d like to get in touch with her, please email at firstname.lastname@example.org Check her out on Facebook. Feel free to join her FREE Facebook group, “The Caregiving Community,” a place by and for present and former family caregivers. Simply click the green “Join” button on the top of the page. Be the first to find out information pertaining to Help You Thru. Join the mailing list.