Being a caregiver comes with its own set of hard yet important life lessons and responsibilities. However, making it a point to integrate and maintain certain behaviors in your daily routine is key to making sure you are able to be a blessing rather than a burden to your loved one.
After working in a hospital for 10 years as a Nurse Practitioner, here are 5 very important lessons I learned about caregiving:
1) “The Oxygen Mask” Principle - Take care of yourself everyday
Think about the safety film they show on airplanes when they’re taking off that encourages parents to make sure to put the oxygen mask on their child before putting on their own; during a crisis you must attend to your own needs in order to attend to another’s.
The same principle applies when you are the caretaker to a loved one; if you’re not able to “breathe easily” how can you possibly ensure that they are? That’s why it is important to make sure that you are getting enough rest, eating healthy and regular meals, and doing something to feed your soul every day
Go to the gym, walk around the block, meet a friend for lunch or splurge on a fancy coffee, which you’d normally deny yourself. The idea is to allow yourself a little pocket of the day to do something that is just for you. You’ll be surprised by how doing something small can go a long way to ensuring that you stay healthy, and avoid feeling overwhelmed by your circumstances. If you get in the habit of regularly managing your own stress, you are less likely to inadvertently take it out on your loved one.
2) Educate yourself about the diagnosis responsibly
When I was working in hospitals, one of the main things we would tell a patient who had been given a new diagnosis is “don’t Google it!” As a caregiver you want to make sure that you know at least as much about your loved-one’s diagnosis as they do – if not more. This both prevents you from asking that person too many questions, and can help you feel more comfortable with understanding why a particular treatment protocol is being followed.
However, make sure that the information you are consuming is accurate. The internet can be a great tool for assisting you in your role as caregiver, however, misinformation is abundant in cyberspace and reading it can cause undue stress on both you and your loved one.
First, try to find out what educational materials your doctor or hospital has to offer. However, if you want to try to fill in some gaps by searching the Internet, limit your reading to large organization websites like Mayo Clinic
or the American Heart Association
3) Listen more than you talk
that individuals who are living with acute or chronic illness tend to experience strong feelings of isolation and powerlessness. Generally speaking, people who are undergoing treatment for an illness suddenly find themselves adrift in a sea of medical jargon and hard decisions, all of which they are navigating from inside a body that’s no longer working in the way that it used to.
One of the best things that you can do as a caregiver is to allow that person to vent while you simply listen. If they get emotional while talking, try to resist the urge to “fix” or eliminate strong emotions. Sadness and anger are normal responses to a medical crisis and tend to lessen in intensity once they are allowed to flare up. Instead of “reacting” to them, try to listen and validate what the person is saying.
Doing so will allow you to better understand the person you are advocating for, and will probably deepen your relationship with them. And above all, if you’re loved one seems to be taking their emotions out on you, do your best not to take it personally. Instead, give them some space and take the opportunity to do something nice for yourself.
4) Don’t try to fix everything… and don’t convince yourself that you can
You’ve probably heard about “helicopter parents” who hover over their children and descend rapidly at the first signs of distress. There is also such a thing as a “helicopter caregiver.” That person who is constantly asking “are you okay?” Who appears immediately with a tissue when they sneeze, or a quick comeback every a doctor is the least bit dismissive. This kind of intense focus can be incredibly annoying to the patient and medical staff, not to mention exhausting for you.
The fact is when someone you love is living with an illness everything is not okay, nor is it going to be okay for the time being. Frankly, things are probably going to pretty crappy for a while, and that’s just how it is. Sure there might be moments where you and your loved one are able to forget everything that is going on (I hope that there are!).
But by-and-large your job is going to be to help move things along the spectrum-of-crappy from “Level 8” to “Level 5.” And there are some things that are going to be “Level 8” no matter what you do – and that has nothing to do with who you are, or how capable you are as a caregiver. Also remember that there is no shame in asking for help. As they say, “it takes a village.”
5) Be a breath of fresh air
Probably the best way to prevent yourself from being an annoyance to your loved one is to make a point of being the opposite: An enhancement. As much as possible, make a point of talking with them about anything and everything BUT the fact that they are sick. By incorporating some flavor of levity and distraction into your caretaking schema you can pretty much guarantee that you avoid feeling like an annoyance.
Bring crossword puzzles to chemo appointments, or download podcasts from the internet and bring a headphone splitter so that you can listen to them together. Watch funny movie together, or check out those documentaries you’ve been meaning to watch forever. Or, quite simply, take a trip down memory lane together. Using the inevitable downtime as an opportunity to do those things you were always too busy to do will help you guarantee that your loved one sees you as a blessing rather than a burden.
Click here to read Margery Pabst’s article, “Key Skills Every Caregiver Needs: Tips from Top Doctors!
Crystal Fornes is a nurse practitioner and patient advocate with over 10 years of experience. She is also helping Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Chief Medical Editor of NBC News, start CarePlanners, a company that gives patients and caregivers better decision-making tools as they navigate the healthcare system with one-on-one support and personalized technology
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