Published on January 13, 2020
- Ask for help from others when you need it.
- Set boundaries to give you and your loved one some space from each other.
- Make healthier choices for improved health and happiness.
- Include time for exercise even when you feel like you don't have the time.
“Put your own mask on before helping others.” I have heard those words countless times while watching flight attendants demonstrate proper use of the oxygen mask in case of an in-flight emergency. But it wasn’t until a recent trip to South Africa that those words took on a new meaning for me. As I fastened my seat belt and settled in for the 15-hour flight, I realized that the international adventure upon which I was embarking was my way of putting my own mask on first.
I moved to Chicago last year to be closer to my dad. My brothers and I had spent the previous year commuting to the Windy City from our homes in California, New York and Georgia to support him when an emergency room visit caused by a fall unearthed additional medical issues that needed to be addressed. Despite the distance, not a week went by without one of us by his side, and we slipped seamlessly back into care partner mode, a role we were all too familiar with after supporting our mom through her nine-year battle with breast cancer.
As we racked up frequent flyer miles and expensive credit card bills, and realized just how many hours of our lives we were spending in airplanes and airports, it became clear that one of us should move to Chicago. Our dad was being discharged into long-term care and would not be returning to the very independent life he had previously been living. He was about to need help managing his finances, his medical care, and other aspects of life that many of us take for granted while we are healthy and able-bodied. Since I had the most freedom at the time, I volunteered to move.
At first, I was at the hospital every day. I would work until 5:00 PM and then head straight to the hospital to have dinner and play chess with my dad until he was ready to go to bed. Some days, I also visited on my lunch break or brought coffee and donuts in the morning before work. I attended every doctor’s appointment, answered every phone call, and fell into a pattern of putting my dad’s needs before my own. I wasn’t working out, I was using alcohol for stress relief, and I had stopped making time for writing and running and all of the other hobbies I enjoy. It’s no surprise that before long I started to feel resentful.
Fortunately, I have two great brothers who reminded me that being my dad’s primary care partner didn’t mean having to give up my own life. They also made it clear that just because I was the one who volunteered to move to Chicago, that didn’t mean I had to handle everything on my own. When I finally admitted that I needed a break—and by break I meant several weeks away in a foreign country where no one could find me—they told me to book a flight and that they would arrange their schedules to be in Chicago during that time.
While the trip to South Africa was a significant long-term investment in self-care, I made several smaller changes and choices right away that had an immediate and equally important impact on my quality of life:
- I asked for help. Like many, I love helping others but find it difficult asking others to help me. When my dad had an appointment with a new oncologist, I was worried about leaving my dog at home, because we had to rely on a company with a wheelchair-accessible van for transport, and I didn’t know how long I would be away. My wonderful neighbors had offered to help in the past—our dogs are best buddies—but this was my first time taking them up on the offer. Despite how uncomfortable I was asking, they were happy to help, the dogs had a great playdate, and I was able to focus on my dad and the conversation about his treatment options instead of worrying about what time I would get home. Lesson: People want to help; you just need to let them.
- I set boundaries. Instead of going to the hospital every day, I started going every other day, and sometimes even every third day. Much to my surprise, the world didn’t end. I still attend my dad’s doctors’ appointments and other important meetings, and I still visit a few times a week, but I no longer spend every free minute at the hospital. Interestingly, as soon as I stopped visiting out of obligation, I found that our time together became much more enjoyable—for both of us. Lesson: Setting boundaries can improve the experience both for the care partner and for the patient.
- I made healthier choices. When I was visiting my dad every night for dinner, I was often bringing food as well. Whether it was pizza or Chinese food or one of many other take-out options, I’d bring enough for us to share. Then, when he went to bed, I’d go home and finish my evening with wine. When I decided to reintroduce self-care into my life, I started by taking a three-month break from alcohol. I also stopped eating at the hospital and started cooking more at home. Now when I bring food, it’s either something I’ve prepared or a special treat just for him. Lesson: Comfort food is only comforting for so long—fuel your body with nutritious food for greater health and happiness.
- I started exercising again. Exercise seems to be the first thing I let go of when life gets hectic. Ironically, it’s also the thing that helps me the most. At the encouragement of a friend, I decided to go beyond my comfort zone and try something new. I signed up for a one-month trial membership at an indoor cycling studio and was hooked after the first few rides. I now attend classes three to five times a week at CycleBar, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself—physically, mentally and emotionally. Those 45 minutes of sweat therapy are my favorite part of the day. Lesson: Make time to exercise even when you feel like you don’t have time.
For you, self-care might not look like going to the gym or hopping on a plane to a foreign country. Maybe it’s a cup of coffee with a friend or an hour reading a book in a quiet corner of the library. Maybe it’s a walk around the block with your spouse, a night out dancing with friends, or an afternoon alone tending your garden. Whatever your version of “putting on your own mask first” is, I encourage you to identify it, make time for it, and recognize the critical function self-care plays in your role as a care partner. I have found that by putting on my own mask first I am stronger, more patient, and more present for those who need me most.
“Self-care is giving the world the best of you, instead of what’s left of you.” —Katie Reed
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