Here is the key: there is no magic answer. You may be searching for an answer that is elusive and forever changing. Our ability to handle all that comes our way changes over time just as the needs of others around us change over time.
Sometimes, just when we think we have a handle on life, something changes and we have to start from scratch.
Let me define my view of balance. I believe we achieve balance when we meet our own needs as well as the needs of those who depend on us. What are our needs? Needs can be physical (our general health), emotional (happiness, joy, love), and material (housing, clothing). Some may want to add spiritual needs as paramount in their lives as well.
Are caregivers meeting their own needs? Caregivers often neglect their yearly check-ups although they would never skip one for their loved ones. Caregivers often put aside their own emotions as they devote their energy to their loved one. Caregivers put off buying themselves new clothes, or items needed because it is so hard to get to a store by yourself and for yourself. When attention is paid to caregiver needs, the caregiver often thinks “Am I doing enough for my loved one?” and this starts the guilt process.
How do we create a system to ensure that caregivers and their loved ones both have their needs met? I suggest keeping an accounting of sorts so that care you provide for another can be matched with care you provide for yourself. You can start with a journal and divide each page in half. Put your loved one’s name on one side and your name on the other. Did you help your loved one in the shower? You can list that on the side under your loved one’s name. Did you take the time to take a shower yourself today? If yes, then list it on the side with your name. If you enjoyed a nice lunch with your mother today, you can list it on both sides. If you prepared her lunch but never sat down yourself to eat, then your side will run a deficit.
The activities you are writing down do not have to match perfectly. For example, you may have played cards with your father for his enjoyment. However, if this is not relaxing or enjoyable to you personally, you cannot put in on your side of the page. In this case, you need to find a source of relaxation that you can put on your side. For example, maybe you read for 30 minutes before going to bed. This may be your source of relaxation.
Not all your activities or the time invested in each will add up equally. In many circumstances, there are not enough hours in the day to devote to yourself as you devote to others. However, the goal is to try and create a day that is shared with the one you love, not dominated by your caregiving. You will become more experienced at this as you practice. No caregiver can create a perfectly balanced spread sheet the first time out. The goal should be to continue trying so that you can achieve more balance in meeting the needs of yourself and your loved one.
By writing down the things you do for your loved one, perhaps you will feel less guilty. Your early journals may be very one-sided. Once you start to even things out, you may realize that you can be a better caregiver when there are some things you can list on your side. Learn from this, being a good caregiver is not always equal to the amount of care provided. If you are constantly frazzled and stressed, the care you provide may reflect your and anxiety and weariness. This may not be the kind of caregiver you set out to be.
If you simply cannot balance the two sides to your journal, it is definitely time to call in help. Respite care can be what you need it to be, whether through a professional organization or through family and friends. You can contact your local Area Agency on Aging to learn more about the Family Caregiver Support Program. Professionals within this program can go over your caregiving experience with you and find sources of support you may not have known existed.
What do you do when your loved one’s demands are so great, you have nothing to write on your side of the page? Sometimes our loved ones have care needs that are so extensive the demand on the caregiver is extreme. Caregivers need to recognize that if the balance sheet does not match up over time, the risk is far greater to both of you. Acting preventively to keep from burning out is a necessity. Caregivers who burn out are sometimes too physically and or mentally exhausted to provide any care.
It is hard to call in professionals when all your mother wants is you. It is hard to say “no” to someone you have loved all your life. If this is your circumstance, putting things into perspective becomes necessary. Let’s look at the case of providing care for your parents. If your mother or father never said “no” to you all your life, where would you be? Were you allowed to go to school? Essentially, your care was placed into the hands of others. At times you may not have been happy about this but for the most part you were probably safe and had your needs met. Did you ever visit with friends or extended family? These times were important in shaping your life. The same analogies can be applied to care for those in need. If it is always provided by one person, and in one way, it can rob both individuals from opportunities needed to sustain personal growth.
Start your balance sheet today. The search for balance is hard but needs to continue. When we achieve a healthy balance, the guilt will not feel as prevalent. The answer is never obvious. As long as our search continues and we keep our minds open to new ways to explore it, balance is never that far away.