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The classical Ayurvedic texts delineate three stages of life.
When we are born, we are in the Kapha stage. As we hit puberty, we enter the Pitta phase (middle age); around 50 or 60, marks the Vata stage of life (old age).
For some, this might also coincide with menopause and andropause. As the Vata in our constitution increases, we experience a range of physical and mental transformations, ranging from drier skin to declining cognitive abilities. Vata in its imbalanced form can also onset insomnia, anxiety, constipation, nervousness, bloating, and much more. Throw pandemic isolation, fear, deaths, uncertainty into the mix…and many of us have seen our parents age way too quickly over the past couple of years.
I know people whose parents developed illnesses over a period, and these friends and colleagues became caregivers. It seemed like a natural progression. I also know people whose families were struck by sudden health issues, and they had to put everything on pause to show up for their parents and in-laws. I fall in the second category.
No matter how you adopt the role of a caregiver, it’s both gratifying and exhausting. It can feel extremely rewarding, but the responsibility also requires resilience and determination.
Gratifying because you can do something meaningful for the people who brought you up; people were there for you when you had ups and downs; people who sacrificed their lives for your happiness. I am, obviously, speaking for families where a parent or both parents were involved in the upbringing and didn’t burden the kids with toxicity and trauma.
Exhausting because suddenly, the people you looked up to start to behave like kids. They have mood swings and tantrums. You can’t predict their behavior or emotional expectations. They want attention and importance. On some occasions, the elderly might seem self-absorbed, and you might not be prepared to handle their change and your role reversal in the relationship.
When I returned from India exactly two weeks ago, I said both to my manager and a friend, “I won’t let jet lag hit me this time.” In hindsight, what a foolish belief to uphold. In hindsight, that was exhaustion speaking. The day after I reached New York City, I got into go-go mode. I think it was in the middle of last week where I realized I was functioning on autopilot. I am a professional, so I kept showing up to work, home, workouts, clients, writing deadlines, cooking, friends…but I didn’t feel the level of motivation I normally do. Can anyone else relate to that feeling? I talked to a few people, and everyone said the same thing: “You haven’t had the time to decompress. You haven’t had a break.”
Yes, Ayurvedic coaches, wellness workshop educators, mindfulness-based speakers, and healthy living columnists also get depleted and find themselves in a funk. The key is to acknowledge the problem, name it, don’t judge it, and gently work your way out of it
Seven ways caregivers can practice self-care:
1. Acknowledge the irreversible changes.
I am not that kid or kid-in-law who will just help with the financial obligations and leave. I communicate with my dad and in-laws daily. I try to be present for their emotional upheavals, which are filled with ebbs and flows. Sometimes, I feel upset, but I know that I cannot afford to personalize any untoward conversations. Getting old during the pandemic is ridiculously scary. I was never the person to run to my parents for help. But it was nice to know that I have a dad I could talk to. Now I know that the senior citizens don’t have the capacity to deal with other people’s woes. The key is to acknowledge the situation, don’t judge it, and gently work with it.
2. Make time for yourself and your own needs.
I am so grateful I was able to travel to India, help my dad and in-laws, and be a part of their healing journey. But I forgot to acknowledge that juggling life in two continents can be tiring. Working at night, attending school at 4 a.m., traveling between two cities, and taking care of people during the day while trying to spend time with my friends who were visiting me…could all be a bit much. Once I started to carve time for my needs, I felt rejuvenated—I hired a taxi one afternoon and spent three hours getting a mani-pedi in a nice spa and interviewing local, small business owners about their experiences with Ayurveda. That was enough joy for me to recharge. When you pay attention to your small needs, you can handle big chaos with grace.
3. Eat a well-balanced diet.
As cliché as it sounds, your body is a temple. You must nourish it with utmost devotion. One of the reasons I didn’t fall sick on this trip despite the heat, sleep-deprivation, and emotionally charged visit is because I was eating freshly prepared, healthy, and hearty meals. I ate it surrounded with love and compassion. I didn’t eat when I was too tired or in an upset mood. As a result, I never once felt too heavy or too full. No gas or bloating or constipation or loose stools or nausea. I don’t have to tell you about the connection between your gut health and mental health.
4. Exercise daily.
I didn’t have access or the time to hit a gym, but I didn’t want to use that as an excuse to not move my body or stress. I always travel with my yoga mat and exercise band. On this trip, a friend loaned me her yoga mat. Outdoor yoga with the fresh breeze hitting the face was magical. There was also the walking track that I leaned on for post-meal walks. On some days, I would climb up and down 11 floors multiple times a day. You figure out how much movement you need. But make it part of your daily life as it is an incredible stressbuster and keeps you healthy physically too.
5. Set healthy boundaries.
We want to do it all. But being a Superwoman or a Superman is a myth. You will run on fumes and then one day come crashing down. Or you may start to resent people who you see responsible for this change in your life. It’s better to set expectations of what you possibly can or can’t do. Communicate openly with compassion. For instance, I am a thinker and like to process my day instead of jumping from one thing to another. On certain nights, I would get into bed by 9 p.m. I had no FOMO that my friends were all hanging out, and I was resting up. Even if the jetlag kept me awake, my body got the rest it deserved, and the silence helped bring my Vata back into balance. And offered me perspective. Scheduling short rest periods and time to reflect between activities and incessant chatting can be therapeutic.
6. Listen to guided relaxation and practice Yoga Nidra.
When you keep going nonstop, the body might show signs of exhaustion, but the mind can continue its chatter. It’s not safe to make decisions from this emotionally charged space. Guided relaxation or Yoga Nidra can offer deep, restorative rest. They can lower anxiety and stress. Yoga Nidra impacts the quality of our thoughts. It can help you detach from your thoughts. Also, these practices help us connect deeply with who we are and what we need.
7. Self-care also means acceptance.
I made this trip with the intention of being there for the elderly. I knew my schedule and time might not always be 100 percent mine. I am also acutely aware that I am one of those people who likes routine and discipline. Even though my friends constantly worried about me not getting eight hours of sleep or enough breaks, and I knew that sleep-deprivation can decay our mind and body, I was okay. I had prepared my mind and body for the upcoming, erratic two weeks. I had accepted that the time in India might be a bit of a struggle. Changing your mindset can be useful in transforming your life and health. It was refreshing not being at war with myself. Acceptance is healing.
Caregiving and being there for the elderly isn’t a sprint. It’s a long-term commitment with twists and turns. To keep focused, healthy, centered, and compassionate, don’t forget to give yourself the same love as you give them.
“Caregiving calls us to lean into love in ways we didn’t know was possible.” ~ Unknown