"Act your age," my dad gently encouraged me that night.
At the age of 21, I had traded keg parties in toga gear for medical procedures in hospital gowns, and a night on the town with the girls for a(nother) night on the couch with my mom. I had 86-ed the steady boyfriend in favor of a standing ménage a trois with Ben & Jerry, and my varsity swim routine had gone so far south that it would take a Latin reconnaissance mission to find it.
I was a caregiving hermit. Haunted by what-if scenarios, I was forever by my mother's side, attending to her every need, terrified to leave for even a few minutes. If the job were to be done right, I knew, I needed to be the one doing it. Besides, my mother was a proud and private person, so I didn't want her weakness exposed to others. What's more, with a prognosis giving her just a few months to live, I was desperate to soak up as much Mom time as possible.
But my dad was right: I sorely needed the night off. So I called up my girlfriends (who were surprised to hear I still existed), and off we went for some much-needed drinking and dancing activities. I waited until 10:00 p.m., mind you, when my mom was sound asleep, and I left my mom under the supervision of my very-capable dad; so after a few deep breaths, I felt sure that everything would be just fine.
Then, at 1:00 a.m., I got the call: "Tory, come home immediately. Your father had a heart attack, and we need to go to the hospital." I careened home at breakneck speed, dodging multiple ambulances as I pulled into the driveway -- where my father was sprawled on a stretcher. "Great," I thought. "I leave home three hours, and this is what happens."
Fortunately, my dad pulled through. Still, one might think this event would inspire me to undergo a medical procedure hermetically sealing me to my parents. Instead, it had the opposite effect: I realized that I absolutely had to get help, and fast.
Chances are that you do, too.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, two-thirds of caregivers eat worse and over half exercise less than they did before becoming a caregiver. In addition, among those caregiving five or more years, one-quarter are in "poor" to "fair" health, and as many as two-thirds struggle with depression.
It truly may be the case that you are, hands-down, the most competent one in your circle for the caregiving role. Still, you can involve other people in ways that give you a breather, without compromising the quality of care for your loved one. Consider the many time-consuming activities that do not require hands-on care, and delegate those to other people.
For example, my mom always had to have eggs, tabasco sauce and barbeque potato chips on hand, 24/7. Soft-boiled eggs provided solid protein, minus the chewing effort; tabasco sauce blasted through the nausea my mom suffered from chemo; and barbequed potato chips, well, let's just say it was a code red emergency when we ran out.
While these items needed to be on hand day-in and day-out, I honestly, truly, did not need to be the one shopping for them. The nice neighbor down the street, it turned out, was perfectly happy to pick up a necessity or three while she was at the market for her own family's needs. All I had to do was ask.
I also delegated cheerleading activities to my aunts, who lived a few hours away. When my mom was in the dumps, I would call and give my aunts the lowdown on what was bothering my mom and what would be the perfect thing to say to her. My mom always felt better after hearing from them! Better yet, as was the pact between my aunts and me, my mother never knew I'd asked them to call.
For caregiving to be effective, it needs to be sustainable. Here are two basic action steps to take, to ensure you last on the long road ahead:
1. Enlist Technology
Appoint someone to start a blog, Facebook page or Twitter account for friends and family. This platform can keep people in the loop about how your loved one is doing and what anyone can do to help -- whether picking up a prescription, cooking a meal or tidying up the house. Call or email this individual a couple of times a week with the latest updates and ideas about how people can offer support. (If privacy is an issue, be sure to make your social media accounts password-protected.)
2. Enlist Volunteers
Ask your local spiritual or community leader to put the word out that you need support. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship often have volunteers at the ready. Twelve-step groups are full of people eager to do service. And hospital social workers may have referrals to local volunteer programs.
As a flight attendant will remind you the next time you fly, "In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. If you are traveling with a child, place your mask on first." Yes, keep your loved one front and center, and yes, be that protective mama bear as you move forward in this caregiving journey. But remember: If you get depleted, you won't be any good to anyone. So be sure to guard your time as vigilantly as you guard the person you love.