Self-Care in Care-giving in the Family

May 14

Grandmother, my mother-in-law, lives with us. She likes being around family and takes an interest in everything that is going on. Her mind is sharp. She has heart and breathing challenges as well as losses in hearing, mobility and dexterity. Making Grandmother comfortable and providing for her needs is not difficult as long as her health is stable.

This is not my first time as a care-giver. I found providing care for young children or children with special needs to be much more intensive and energy consuming. Nevertheless, every care-giving household has to develop a rhythm that works for them.

When Grandmother came to live with us, I decided to see care-giving as my new job. Care-giving for a family member is usually long term. It is remarkable how much energy we have in for a sprint, but we need to pace ourselves for a long-distance race. I let go of other things to be flexible and available. I make sure there was “me” time in my days – as long as I do what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

Grandmother was a great cook and baker. Her daughters are great cooks. I used to really enjoy cooking and baking, but in my busy working years we had slipped into a rather boring food routine, with “shake and bake” chicken a few times a week. Our new living arrangement required me to renew my old interest in food and cooking.  What we ate together became a big part of our adjustment to living together.

Sometimes I would be annoyed that I would go the extra distance and prepare something new and interesting only to have her say, “It’s not my favorite”.  Now I understand her tastes better. She doesn’t like most vegetables but will eat many of them if I serve them with sugar. She likes variety, which means, she likes roast beef, ham, sausages and chicken legs. 

I am poking fun at her palate foibles because humour needs to be part of care-giving. Laughing at our absurdities, hers and mine, is better than being annoyed. What is really funny is Grandmother observing that some of the family, especially the great-grandchildren are “picky eaters.” Of course, none of us is a picky eater when we can choose and make our own foods.

That is the crux of the matter. Grandmother lost so much of her self-identity when she moved in with us. She isn’t able to prepare the food she likes in the way she likes to prepare it. She has had to adapt herself to our home and our lifestyle. She has lost her independence to drive and take herself where she likes to go. She cannot even walk away from a political discussion that she doesn’t like.

What Grandmother retained is her interest and love for her family. She still has her wit. Her faith is founded on rock. In fact, spiritually speaking, she has become more peaceful and accepting. We share this life journey with others. Every relationship has its challenges but also its gifts. And in Grandmother’s case, it is a privilege to journey with her in these last years of her life, mining the wisdom of a nonagenarian.

Self Care Practices

Trust myself. My biggest personal challenge in care-giving is my problem, how I feel about myself. I have to let go of the ego-need to feel that I am making her happy.

Prioritize. This is related to pacing myself. Do what is necessary first and some things may be left undone.

Give each other time and space. Sometimes a respite is a couple of hours, sometimes it is a couple of days. All relationships need some personal space.

Ask for and Accept help. “It takes a village to raise a child.” It takes a community to care for its vulnerable members. If you’re lucky the extended family will be part of that community.

Listen. When Grandmother moved in, I thought I would have to bake lots of cookies and sweets, which isn’t really my strong suit. What I didn’t know was how she would notice and appreciate every time the sheets are changed. By listening I learned that she feels just as cared for when I wash her sheets as if I baked cookies. So now I let others bring her sweets and I make sure she has frequently changed sheets. We are both happier.

Empathize. An understanding of their pains and frustrations gives me more patience and compassion.

Pray, Meditate, Sit in Silence.  Thereare many ways to centre and connect with the Source of life who is within each of us and greater than each of us.

Turn in wonder. My prayer is that I may be awake and soaking in the gifts of these moments in time.Then in years to come I will remember how her face lit up when one of her children or grand-children phoned or came to visit.  I will be able to look back and say, “What would Grandmother say in this situation? What would she do?”  I will remember how she laid out her clothes every evening, preparing to wake up the next morning. I will draw strength from this memory and others and in these memories, I will lean into her faith in the goodness in life.