Caregiving often becomes all-consuming. It has a way of taking over your life, leaving its evidence in every room of your home. The kitchen counter becomes a make-shift medicine cabinet, medical supplies find their way into drawers and reading material clutters the coffee table. Soon, the relatively tidy home you kept pre-caregiving becomes a thing of the past. Combine that with the stress of taking care of a loved one, and the thought of ‘personal space' becomes a thing of the past.
While carving out some ‘me time' and a place to call your own are extremely important, caregivers often feel guilty at the prospect.
Emma Dickison is president of Home Helpers, one of the largest home care organizations in the United States. She learned about caregiving at a young age. In high school, her grandmother came to live with the family after suffering a fifth stroke and stayed with them for nearly two decades. Over the years, Dickison has cared for other family members, as well as her own parents. What she's learned from her experience is that carving out some time and space for yourself is not just something you should do; it's something you have to do.
"When you're a family caregiver, you look at it as such a responsibility," Dickison says. "It's all consuming. But like everything else, we all need a respite. In the work world, most of us have Saturday and Sunday off, and caregivers need time off, too."
Dickison has a large extended family which helped care for loved ones when she and her siblings needed a break, whether it was for an hour or a weekend. While she realizes not everyone has that luxury, she stresses that taking care of yourself, mentally and physically, is a critical aspect to caregiving. "No one can do something 24/7 and have it be healthy. You have to take time for yourself, even if it's 10 minutes to do your own interests, catch up with friends or read the newspaper. That time is crucial."
Finding time for respite
So how do you carve out that time and space? Dickison says caregivers need to schedule their ‘me time'. Why? Because what we put in our calendar is usually important to us – it becomes a priority. Dickison suggests finding a time when you know your loved one is taken care of: when they're taking a daily nap, when they're asleep at night or at a weekly appointment when your presence isn't necessary.
Creating space for respite
In addition to finding some time to yourself, Dickison is also a strong believer in creating a space that's just for you – think of it as your personal retreat, where you can re-charge yourself. That might be a separate room in the home or just a favorite chair or couch in the corner. It doesn't matter whether you live in a large house or a small apartment - this area is your ‘happy place' where you can relax, unwind and revel in whatever brings you joy.
Dickison recommends decorating the area with photos of loved ones, or have a photo album with pictures of friends or your favorite place to visit. You might also want to dress up the area with decorative pillows and/or comfortable throw blankets in your favorite colors and textures. Using scented candles are another way to loosen up, along with flowers and plants which will brighten up any space and improve your mood.
Dickison recommends that before you make your plans, whether they be redecorating or setting aside some personal time, you discuss them with your loved one first. This is especially important if you're a caregiver who may be living away from your home temporarily, such as in your parent's house, and want to make a few décor changes. However, the message of the conversation is the same in both instances. Tell your loved one that having some time and space that's your own will help you take better care of them.
Of course, it's also important to create a support system for yourself as a caregiver. Rely on friends or other family members who can be a sounding board for you, or consider joining a support group where you can share your experiences with others who are understand what you're going through.
For Dickison, caring for her grandmother changed her life. Not only did she learn so much about the woman during the time they spent together, Dickison also felt called to a career helping older adults. The responsibility she took on at a young age turned into a tremendous gift with rewards that will last a lifetime.