Practicing self-care as a caregiver

Q: What are some tips for staying healthy and grounded while caring for aging parents and young children at home? 

This is no doubt a question applicable to an increasing number of us. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, nearly half of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child. These individuals are considered part of the “sandwich generation.” The dynamics of aging and its impact on family roles can be confusing and challenging. Here are ideas to prevent burnout and keep you centered.

— Acknowledge how difficult this is. Caring for family members, particularly during the bookends of life, is going to be unpredictable at best. Being responsible for three generations including your own can prove to be logistically and financially challenging. When caring for aging parents in particular you may find yourself in a role reversal: the people you relied upon are now needing your guidance and this is an adjustment that will take time.

— Honor your limitations. You’ve heard this before but it bears repeating: you are human and cannot be expected to do it all. Seek resources from professionals in the community. Have quarterly family meetings to delegate tasks. Remember you will never be able to control every aspect of your mother’s or your son’s life but there is power in being a compassionate witness to their experience. Recognize your efforts without being overly attached to the outcome. Stop and take a few breaths throughout the day and repeat this mantra: May I simply offer my love, whether it is accepted, rejected or met with indifference.

— Self-care is essential. If you’re waiting for everything on your to-do list to get checked-off  before you rejuvenate yourself, it will never happen. A wise friend who is part of the sandwich generation stated, “I never know when I’ll be called to serve. So I adopted the idea of self care because, like a professional athlete, I never know when I’m going to be called into the game and I want to be prepared when I do.” In addition to the hugely important triad of rest, clean eating and daily movement, let self care come in the form of social connection, creative outlets and remembering your sense of humor. You will undoubtably return to your caregiving duties more refreshed not to mention be modeling healthy behavior for your children.

— Look inward. It’s easy to get so caught in the busyness of competing commitments that you neglect important undercurrents within you. Find a place to soften somewhere in the middle of the madness. Notice if you feel emotions such as grief, anger or being confronted with your own vulnerability. There comes a point when we stop running and find that turning toward our own genuine feelings becomes the most valuable way to be real and let go.

— Observe what this teaches you about yourself. There is no better time than when we are stretched to our edge to reflect on what the experience is teaching us about ourselves. Frank Ostaseski, the founder of Zen Hospice stated, “The eyes of a dying person, they’re the clearest mirrors I’ve ever looked into. In their gaze, there’s no place to hide. Being with the dying has shown me myself in ways I couldn’t have imagined before.” Notice what is elicited inside your own heart as you watch your child or parent’s experience unfold.

Ultimately, let this be a reminder to stay awake and savor your life and your relationships as they are right now, complications and all, rather than shutting down. Do not wait for your child to be completely self-sufficient or your elderly parent to pass away in order to be fully present with them. Do not wait to tell them how much you care about them. And do not postpone giving yourself compassion throughout this nuanced time.

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at Send questions to [email protected].