How I Balanced Motherhood and Being My Father's Hospice Caregiver
How does a family caregiver maintain sanity in this sandwich-generation role?
When I was in my 30s, I faced the grueling task of simultaneously caring for my ill father and my 3-year-old daughter. During my father’s home hospice stay, I took it upon myself to make sure that he took his medications and called his doctor to ask about his treatments, while also carving out time to play with my daughter and cook her meals.
This dual role isn’t atypical; there’s even a name for people like me. We’re referred to as part of the “sandwich generation” because we’re “sandwiched” between caring for children and for aging or ill parents at the same time. And, according to the Pew Research Center:
“Adults who are part of the sandwich generation—that is, those who have a living parent age 65 or older and are either raising a child under age 18 or supporting a grown child—are pulled in many directions. Not only do many provide care and financial support to their parents and their children, but nearly four-in-ten (38%) say both their grown children and their parents rely on them for emotional support.”
Unsurprisingly, the transitions between the two roles aren’t always easy to navigate. In fact, it sometimes felt impossible. There were many moments when I alternated between laughing with my young daughter while she played with her toys, and shedding tears at my father’s bedside as I bore witness to his pain. I learned immediately that, as a family caregiver, I needed to take a more active role in caring for myself, too. Otherwise, it’d be difficult for me to fulfill my duties both as a daughter and a mother.
I tried many different coping strategies and eventually discovered five that helped me maintain my sanity while I was in this dual caregiver role. Each caregiver’s list may look a little different, but it is important to identify what works for you. I believe that these strategies could help any family caregiver who finds themselves coming to the end of their rope.
1) Exercise. (I Know...but Seriously.)
Research indicates that even 15 to 20 minutes of exercise will reset your body and help get your endorphins flowing. The best part about this is that it doesn’t need to be intense exercise; all you need to do is just get your body moving. Take a walk around the block, do calisthenics, or find an online exercise instructional video to try to keep your spirits and energy levels at a place where you are able to offer your best. Going to the gym is also an option, but don’t push yourself too hard or feel like you need to spend a full hour there. Again, it’s the quality of the exercise that matters, not the quantity. (You may want to consider hiring a babysitter to watch your child while you squeeze in a workout.)
2) Allot a Certain Amount of Time for Each Person
There were times when I experienced this overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t get to everything that I needed to do, or that I wasn’t doing enough -- whether it was to help my father or nurture my daughter. Caregiving requires focus, and although you might feel the need to multitask and try to provide care simultaneously, avoid doing so. Try to designate alternate periods of time for taking care of one person or the other. Sometimes, this may prove difficult, but caring for more than one person at the same time will only set everyone up for failure. Try to make lists and schedule time throughout the day to address each person’s needs.
3) Cut Yourself Some Slack
Some days will be hard, and the unexpected will occur. In my situation, there were several factors that cropped up that were out of my control. For example, while my father was in hospice, he developed shingles and his hospice team had to move quickly to address his medical emergency; at the same time, my daughter developed a cold and a fever. I tried not to blame myself or panic when my father’s illness spiraled in an unexpected direction while juggling the care of my daughter. When these types of incidents happened, I learned to accept this was a part of the terrain. I kept repeating to myself, “I am doing the best I can.” Having a go-to phrase to lift your spirits and help you avoid being hard on yourself goes a long way in keeping your sanity.
4) Delegate Responsibilities
If people volunteer to help, let them. Or, if financial resources aren’t an issue, pay individuals to help ease your responsibilities. Specifically, you can hire a babysitter or mother's helper to watch your child while you care for your aging loved one. You can even hire a respite caregiver to care for them while you take a much-needed break for a few hours. You could also consider finding a housekeeping service to help with tidying up your space.
If neighbors offer assistance, whether it’s to pick up the mail at your house, take your child for a play date, or sit with your parent, graciously accept it! These small gestures free up time for you to just take a breather, get some exercise, or even schedule a coffee date with a friend.
5) Write a Gratitude List
When balancing caregiving responsibilities, it’s easy to lose sight of taking care of your needs. There will be times when you feel sad, despondent, or even hopeless. Keeping a daily journal is a great and easy way for family caregivers to remind themselves of what makes them feel good. In my experience, I found it really helpful to take a few moments at the end of the day to jot down two or three things that I felt grateful for. This simple act always managed to fill me with a spark of goodness and hope.
As a family caregiver, you might feel like you need to forego self-care because your loved one’s health should take first priority. But the reality of the situation is that your health -- both physical and mental -- is just as important, if not more so. Think about it this way: If you don’t care for yourself and your own needs, then you’ll be far less capable of caring for your loved ones, too. At the end of the day, practicing self-care is the best way juggle multiple roles. The goodwill that comes from this philosophy will help you offer the best assistance for those who need it the most.
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