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Most of my friends and cousins are caregivers.
It’s not surprising; our parents, in-laws, and other elderly are getting older. Most of us are in our 40s and some in 50s and our parents in their 70s or 80s.
Who is a family caregiver? According to Caring Senior Service, “Family caregivers are members of the family who choose to care for a loved one. These caregivers may be children, spouses, or other family members. They may work another job in addition to their responsibilities and usually don’t receive compensation for their service.”
I will be honest; it’s not easy to see your loved ones get older. I was in Kolkata, India, recently and spotted the bakery and legendary tearoom my dad would take me to when I was a little girl. Whenever we were in India or in Kolkata, it was daddy-daughter time at Flurys on Park Street in the chic part of town. Dad introduced me to the joys of pineapple pastry and experiencing a tea room without getting overwhelmed. Today, despite being only in his 70s, pastries are completely off limits for him now. It’s not just the pastry; so much has changed for the elderly and their caregivers like us.
It’s the small things and it’s the big things that can be triggering for caregivers. A friend’s mom kept repeating the same question about my travels. Memory becomes a myth for many. There are mood swings, feeling low, irritability, and a sense of emptiness that the elderly feel. They become like children—the focus is just their needs. It’s not easy to process or witness the transformation. A few people constantly talk about their illness. A friend’s dad in New York became disgruntled with age, so he turned mean toward his children, which made it harder for them to care. But how do you not attend to the needs of an aging parent and fight biology even if they are swearing at you? I have spoken with people with complicated family dynamics and toxic relationships, and even they struggle from completely disconnecting.
The question: How do you help the elderly objectively without sacrificing your own well-being?
1. Eat well: I can tell you that Ayurveda recommends cooking and eating fresh meals every day. It also suggests including six tastes and honoring food combinations. But if that’s not part of your life philosophy or if you don’t have the bandwidth for it now, that’s okay. Just make sure you stay hydrated, avoid junk and processed foods, don’t binge eat or drink, and be mindful about your caffeine and alcohol consumption.
2. Set boundaries around yourself: No one can do it all. It’s an important thing to remember and embrace. If our elderly are aging, we aren’t getting younger either. Caregiving is a marathon, so you need to be strategic about making sustainable choices instead of overdoing things, feeling resentful, and burning out.
3. Connect with other caregivers: I feel it’s always helpful to talk about your challenges and triumphs with people who get it. Caregiving doesn’t come with a manual. You could do everything right, yet the elderly might get upset. When you share with a friend or family member, you’ll realize that you aren’t alone in your struggles. You might get some solid advice and encouragement. There are times I love to sit in silence with a friend, and that’s healing; other times, we grab a meal and open our hearts. The space and conversations are safe and sacred.
4. Make self-care nonnegotiable: The other day, my brother reminded me why I should never justify or explain to anyone why I need to practice self-care or spend time with certain friends or cousins since that’s integral to my own healing and nourishment when I am taking care of the elderly. My husband reiterated that I should remember to take care of me while constantly helping a barrage of people and their emotions. While I don’t wait for other people’s approval or validation to go through life (like many do), their words made me feel anchored, loved, supported, and visible.
5. Move your body daily: I don’t need to tell you that exercise has an impact on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. You don’t have to do competitive sports, but it’s important to practice yoga or get in a 30-minute walk in nature or a short swim. The cliché, “Walk away when angry,” is such a handy tip for a caregiver. Emotions can be raw and volatile around the elderly when they are having a moment. Walking away is not only a good workout but also the simplest way to avoid any damages if you lose your patience. The guilt of reacting in the moment eats you alive when you watch your older parents or in-laws sleep or walk. They are so frail.
6. Take time for your own needs: Pay attention to your sleep, appetite, mood, digestion, and exhaustion levels. Are you disinterested in daily tasks or unable to complete your usual chores? How is the focus? Is your memory still reliable or have you sensed any fogginess? Do you wake up feeling tired? Are you able to sleep through the night? How are your bowel movements? I have worked with clients who didn’t address their unresolved issues and battled constipation. The mind-body connection.
7. Communicate authentically: Many of us have the habit of becoming a martyr, even if unintentionally. That can turn into frustration. Communicate your feelings, your limitations, and your needs as you perform caregiving duties. But do it with love and kindness. I recently told my dad that his generation is adamant and that makes caregiving challenging when we only have their best interest at heart. He heard me for a second and agreed. People can’t read what’s on your mind unless you tell them. Many of us are grateful to be helping the people who shaped our lives. But nothing in the world is all pleasant or all unpleasant. When we keep the lines of communication open, we reduce both stress and chances of confusion or false expectations.
You aren’t alone. Give yourself credit for the care you give your loved ones—I can say it with certainty that it makes a difference. I have an aging father and in-laws, and I know how much stronger and visible they feel when we all take turns to show up for them. But in loving others, it’s easy to forget ourselves.
I hope these self-care tips help you in your self-care journey.
“Caregiving often calls us to lean into love we didn’t know possible.” ~ Tia Walker