Caregiving: Why We Have to Talk About It

Ed. note: This blog is cross-posted from the Huffingtonpost.com. The original post date was May 12, 2016. Read the original post.

Group of women smilingI was a caregiver for 13 years for one of the most important men in my life — my father, Papa JR. Like many caregivers, I experienced the joy and the heartbreak of caring for a parent at the end of his life. It's a journey that sometimes made me laugh and other times made me cry. He lived with me until he passed last spring. It was an honor to care for him and it was a blessing to share daily life with him. But there were challenges, too.

The truth is that caregiving is hard work, no matter how much we love the person. And when you care for a parent, there's an added level of difficulty because you're switching roles. They become the child and you become the parent — and sometimes the nurse. If things aren't confusing enough, you're also an individual with your own needs.

That's why I want to talk about caregiving this National Women's Health Week. We can't sweep this issue under the rug. More people are experiencing chronic illnesses and that means many of us will at some point care for a loved one. Having knowledge and open conversations about caregiving sets us all up for success. It helps highlight the issues we face so that we can find solutions, and hearing from others helps us better prepare for the challenges. Having been a caregiver, I want to share two important pieces of advice with you — one for you as a caregiver and one for you as an individual.

For the Caregiver

My father was living with dementia and his mind would come and go. I needed to adapt to that change, be patient, and learn as much about his condition as possible. My goal was to help him find balance within a new normal. I wanted to keep him physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally stimulated every day. I set goals with him and gave him things to look forward to, which included getting him involved in a lot of different activities. My favorite weekly outing was date night. One evening, my papa, who was a cheapskate, took the nurse and me out for dinner. When we went to order our drinks, he told us to get one drink and share it. His mind may not have been the sharpest, but he had a good sense of humor. Some of his favorite activities were swimming, art class, tennis, and salsa dancing (for the excitement of having beautiful women dance around him). He also loved attending The Potters House, our church. The community there truly embraced him. I was also able to build a support system outside of the home, which made caregiving less overwhelming for me. I think that's the key — realizing that you can't do it all yourself. It doesn't make you a bad caregiver. It makes you a better one.

With increased medical costs, it's important to do research to find a plan that works best for you. Educate yourself about the illness, learn caregiving techniques, accept help, seek resources, set realistic goals, and prioritize. And make sure you have a financial plan. (Some general online reading can be a good place to start. Try caregiving.org and Medicare.gov.) First decide on and then map out your plan of care. Find out how your family and friends can support you. Look for caregiving services in your community, such as a local hospital program, adult care center, or church. Our church had a great program called Golden Days. My father looked forward to attending every Thursday, not just to socialize but to enjoy lunchtime. He never turned down a meal. The people you meet can become your extended family. They'll offer much needed support for you and the person you're caring for.

For the Individual

You've heard it before, but I'll say it again: In order to take care of others, you must first take care of yourself. If we don't prioritize our own health, how can we be our best selves or take care of our loved ones? I take time for me every morning. I call it PMS, but it's good PMS! It stands for prayer, meditation, and stretching. It sets me up for a successful day because it soothes my soul, energizes my body, and uplifts my spirit. When I don't take this time for me in the morning, I notice a huge difference. It keeps me balanced and centered.

As a wellness expert for 25 years, I recommend that you incorporate a healthy daily regiment, focusing on your mind, body, and spirit. We all have busy, hectic schedules, but your health is not an option. It's a necessity. It doesn't have to be time consuming. Maybe it means getting up 10 minutes earlier to get pumped up, powered up, and prayed up for the day. Invest in yourself, just like you invest in the people around you.

I hope my experiences can help you as you navigate your own caregiving journey. Caring for my father had its challenges, but it was well worth it. No matter how and when you enter caregiving, remember to be loving, patient, honorable, and respectful. Although I have received many awards and accolades, caregiving is my greatest achievement. My papa once told his nurse, "Darn, I got a good daughter." As the anniversary of his death is approaching, I thank God for strengthening me during the journey and I will cherish forever the sweet and loving memories I shared with my papa.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.