Disclaimer: This conversation is sponsored in part by AARP, the Ad Council, and Feel Rich. As always, my opinions remain unbought and unbossed, though.
My name is Erika, and I’m a caregiver—not just for my children, either. Believe me when I tell you, this life ain’t easy.
Being a caregiver to an older loved one is hard work, and the studies bear that out. Compared to our non-black counterparts, black families are more likely to begin caring for our loved ones at a younger age, and often end up doing so without he help of a nurse or other paid support. We’re more likely to spend more than 20 hours each week caring for our them, and we’re often more likely to be “sandwiched”—we’re caring for our older and younger loved ones (like children, for example) at the same time. What’s more, even though we spend about the same dollar amounts as our non-black peers, that dollar amount winds up being a larger percentage of our income and net worth because we typically have less in earnings and, by extension, net worth.
Caregiving is tough stuff. The Ad Council learned through their research that the expectation in black families is that one person ultimately will shoulder the responsibility of caring for their elder parent, and do so without complaint or criticizing. It’s a byproduct of being an economically disenfranchised community—if your jobs refuse to pay you a sufficient amount to not only help you live today but put away money to help you live in your senior years, all you can do is hope for your children to help care for you while you sacrifice everything to give them the most and the best.
But, I suspect it’s more than that, too—in situations like my mother’s, a freak accident changed the way she lived, whether or not she worked, and how much of her life she could manage on her own. In the blink of an eye, you could become responsible for someone else in ways you couldn’t imagine. It’s important to be prepared for that, both physically and mentally.
But how?, you ask.
Of course I have a few things I’ve learned from being a caregiver for a loved one, and I hope my insights can help you, too:
1) Put your own oxygen mask on, first. Yes, it might feel like the plane is going down fast some days, and yes you might feel like your loved one’s in dire need of their oxygen mask right now and first and ASAP and immediately and every other word that conveys urgency, but the truth of the matter is… there will always be emergencies and there will always be days when it feels like the plane is going down fast. If you spend every day putting everyone else’s mask on first…do you ever put on your own mask? Do you ever address your needs at all, let alone before someone else’s?
You can’t always put everyone else first. At some point in time, you burn out. You have to find regular activity that not only builds you up, but helps refuel you to help you get the energy to handle the every day responsibilities of caring for family.
2) Find support groups for caregivers. Believe it or not, you are not alone. And, because being a caregiver is so common, there are support groups out there where you can share your thoughts, feelings, frustrations, and fears with other people who are in that same position and are most likely to empathize with you. With family, if you’re sharing your frustrations with them, they’re reluctant to empathize because they fear you’ll ask them to share the burden (which you should and which they should) and are more likely encourage you to “suck it up” to prevent you from feeling like you need to pass the responsibility on to someone else…someone like them. With a support group, you have other people who give you full empathy and attentiveness, largely because they don’t fear you asking them for other kinds of support.
3) Exercise—do it for stress relief, do it to improve your own quality of life, do it to stay healthy. Approximately half of the caregivers that both AARP and the Ad Council surveyed reported feeling some kind of physical strain directly related to the tasks they perform in their caregiving duties. That’s a lot. Setting aside some self care time specifically devoted to making you stronger, helping you relieve stress, and taking your mind off of what’s going on outside the walls of your workout makes a huge difference in not only the care you provide to your loved one, but the way you handle the random stress that comes with managing the life of another adult. It’s much easier to handle a crisis that happens with your loved one when you aren’t also lugging around the baggage of three days worth of stress and crises at work.
4) Nourish yourself mindfully. Don’t eat your feelings. Don’t eat your feelings. Don’t eat your feelings. Trust me. I did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that.
Being a caregiver is hard work, no doubt, but when you take care of yourself while also caring for your loved one, you get to appreciate all the rewarding, loving, and truly precious moments you have with them. What could be more special than that?
Take advantage of the resources that AARP and the Ad Council have compiled to help you on your journey as a caregiver. Check out the AARP Caregiver Resource Center. Join AARP’s Caregiving Community. Visit the AARP Care Guides, which help support those of us caring for loved ones with specific challenges like cancer, dementia, or caring for someone long-distance. Taking care of yourself is taking care of your loved ones. Don’t forget that.