Why is it so hard for a caregiver to switch into "me" mode?

Caregivers are constantly being told that they need to find time for themselves, whether that be looking for respite care, taking their loved ones to an adult day center, or just going for a short walk to get out of the house.

But, for a person who is used to taking care of someone else, finding the time to relax is often easier than actually being able to relax.

Cindy Laverty, caregiver coach, radio talk show host, and author of "Caregiving: Eldercare Made Clear and Simple," experienced this dilemma first-hand when she became the primary caregiver for her ex-husband's father and mother. Laverty says that she was so consumed with the need to remain in control and take care of everything in her in-laws' lives; that she neglected to take care of herself in the beginning stages of her caregiving journey. This led to a brush with extreme caregiver burnout and a resolve to re-think her approach to caregiving.

Laverty says there are certain thoughts that may prevent a caregiver from truly relaxing:

  1. "I need to be in charge of everything that has to do with my loved one's care." Laverty says that caregivers sometimes find it difficult to let go of their caregiving mindset—even when their mind and body are screaming at them to take a break. "You can't be in charge of everything," Laverty says, "People take on the role of caregiver thinking that they can do everything for six months, but, in this world, that role can last for years, even decades."
  2. "I can't stop worrying that something will go wrong if I'm not there." Some caregivers, when offered the opportunity to take a breather, find that they can't stop their minds from running through dozens of "What if?" scenarios. What if my mother falls and the respite caregiver can't pick her up? What if my father has another stroke while I'm gone? These kinds of thoughts can make a caregiver incapable of relaxing, even when they're away from the person they're caring for.
  3. "I shouldn't be enjoying myself while my loved one needs care." Laverty admits that when she first started out taking care of her elderly relatives, she put herself in the position of being "on call" all of the time, despite the fact that she had access to additional caregivers who were able to help. Guilt can make a caregiver feel as though they're being selfish by taking some time for themselves. A guilt-ridden caregiver who does decide to take some time away may find themselves so consumed by regret that it's impossible to relax.

It's normal for caregivers to experience these thought patterns at certain times.

Laverty offers some tips to help caregivers cope with these thoughts, and learn how to let go:

  1. Make the decision that your life matters. Because they are so consumed by caring for their loved ones, caregivers are notoriously poor when it comes to taking care of themselves. According to Laverty, the only way to get rid of the obsessive, "on call," mentality is to decide that you matter just as much as your loved one does. It won't be easy, but deciding that you, the caregiver, deserve to have peace, tranquility, and calm, is the first step towards being able to make the most of your time away from your loved one. "No one is going to do caregiving the way the primary caregiver does, and that's ok, as long as the person is being cared for," Laverty says.
  2. Ask for help, more than once. A common caregiver lament is that they can't find anyone to help them. When caregivers tell Laverty that their family/friends refuse to help, she replies, "When was the last time you asked?" It's true that people may not be able to shoulder a significant portion of the caregiving burden, but Laverty says that an important part of asking for help is accepting how your friends and family show up. For example, your sister may not be able to help you with the day-to-day care of your mother, but she might be able to cook a week's worth of meals for you—this is how she is showing up to help you and your mother. If you demonstrate your appreciation for the assistance that others give, no matter how seemingly insignificant, it might make them more likely to seek other ways to help you in the future.
  3. Decide to really be "gone." Being "gone" means that, barring an emergency, you completely remove yourself from the situation of being at your loved one's beck and call. Making the decision to relax and truly be gone may be even more difficult for a caregiver than agreeing that you matter as much as your loved one does. Laverty attributes the trickiness of this endeavor to the fact that a caregiver's mind is constantly in "fix-it" mode. When you're taking care of an elderly loved one, it can be hard to accept that you often can't "fix" what's causing them pain. What you can do is help make them happier, healthier, and more comfortable. "When you stop trying to fix everything, it gets so much easier to relax," says Laverty.
  4. When you have the time, do something you enjoy. The key to successful relaxation, according to Laverty, is doing things that bring joy back into your life. This will mean different things for different people. For some it might be taking a hike with a good friend. For others, it could be getting a manicure, or a massage. "When you're engaging in joyful activities for yourself, it's hard to stay stuck in the ‘What if's,' " Laverty says.

Learning how to let go and unwind will likely be a difficult process for most caregivers.

Laverty cautions caregivers that being alone with your thoughts may not be a pleasant experience, at first. Ugly, scary emotions are likely to surface, but they have to in order to find peace. She suggests therapy, journaling, and meditation as a few ways to help a caregiver cope with these difficult feelings.

Ultimately, true relaxation is about discovering how to connect with (and love), yourself—warts and all. "Caregivers need to learn how to be easier on themselves. You don't have to be perfect," Laverty says.

If you find that your caregiver guilt is provoked by this notion, Laverty recommends quelling it by asking yourself this question:

Why are you more into caregiving than you are into having joy, peace, and serenity?