Survival Tricks

Survival Tricks

Caregivers have to make a special effort to care for themselves. I once went four months without taking a break from caring for my mother. I had to leave town to ensure I took time off. Since I lived in the same building as my mother, it was only all too easy to pop in for visits several times a day. It wasn’t until I woke up on a Saturday morning and DIDN’T go directly to Mom’s that I felt the relief of holiday bliss. Oh, what a feeling!

I just had my first weekend off from caring for Mom in four months. I had to leave town to achieve this. It wasn’t until I actually woke up on Saturday morning and DIDN’T go directly to Mom’s that I felt the relief of holiday bliss. Oh, what a feeling.survival tricks

My sisters insisted that I take regular time off. And they were correct to be so adamant. It is so important to take regular breaks from caring for elderly parents. You are no good to your parent if you are burned out, and burn out is a huge problem for caregivers. People caring for their elderly parents at home tend to isolate themselves as they plod from home to the parent’s abode and back home again. While you are running your parent’s home like a well-ordered ship, your own home has piles of laundry on the dining room table, just waiting to be put away. Or your Christmas tree is still up and it is April. The other night you gave in and washed all the piles of dirty dishes in the sink, and the only reason you did that was because you were totally out of plates. You haven’t even dug out your receipts or prepared your own tax return, but your parent’s taxes were done well on time. Do you recognize yourself any of this?

I’m taking my own advice and planning a holiday for myself. I can hardly wait. Preparing to leave means getting Mom all squared away – writing down contact numbers, notifying the care-giving agency that I’ll be away, ordering Mom’s wine (it would make the caregiver’s lives hell if Mom ran out of wine!) and, oddly, buying a new dishwasher and arranging for it to be installed while I’m away. Details, details. All those details were buzzing in my head like crazy bees in a hive, along with all the things I had to do to get ready myself for my trip. I woke up at 4 am this morning and that’s way too early to start the day!

I recognize that it is not always possible to hare off on holiday in order to take a break from caring for your elderly parent. Here are a few of the survival tricks I’ve discovered. Some Saturdays, I “take the morning off” and only appear at Mom’s around lunch time. That gave me the feeling I had taken a small break from my care routine. To ease my isolation, I also regularly scheduled coffee dates with friends (leaving Mom in the capable hands of her caregivers). Last but not least, I made certain to end my last visit of the day with Mom around supper time. She always asked me to eat dinner with her, but by 6 pm, I was pretty much done. I would have seen Mom six or seven times already each day, and each time I would have solved a problem or helped Mom out of her confusion. I’m a chronic pain patient, too, and I have to take care of my back. By 6 pm, I’m in a great deal of pain. So I usually declined Mom’s invitation to eat dinner with her, except on Sundays when I often cooked dinner for Mom and ate it with her. Sundays aside, I was back in my own condo by 6 pm. I cooked my own dinner and then I usually reclined in my special chair in the living room and watched Netflicks or TV. It was all I could do by that time, I’d be so bagged out. I’d be in bed by 9 every night, too exhausted to stay up to watch the news.

It is essential to take regular breaks, and once I get back from my trip I will take my own – and my sisters’ – advice. I believe that taking one weekend off a month will do the trick, as long as I keep up with my other survival tricks. I will probably have to leave town in order to achieve my purpose, but that’s all right. I can go visit a friend or throw myself on my daughter’s mercy. Or perhaps I’ll take myself off to Stratford and see a play, or even go to Niagara-on-the-Lake to see something at the Shaw Festival. I’d like to discover the St. Jacobs Market in Kitchener, and I had a friend in Stratford I could go and visit. Once I started thinking about some options, I realized there were many to pursue. It might be fun to be a tourist in my own province.

If you cannot get away for a weekend, I still urge you to take a weekend off here and there. And really take it off! No visits! No problem-solving! Lounge around in your PJs until noon, read the paper and drink coffee til your nerves buzz. Go for a long walk and have tea in a cafe. Or put on a TV series on Netflicks and indulge yourself in some great television. Just take the time off, I beg you. I’ll repeat something here: you will be absolutely no good to your elderly parent if you burn out.

Let’s look at this idea of burn out for a minute. Have you become critical of your elderly parent? Are you short-tempered with him or her at times? Has your store of tremendous patience worn out? Do you find yourself feeling reluctant to go and visit Mom or Dad? Those are some of the signs of burn out, my friend, and you had better act quickly to restore yourself.

We don’t value true rest in our society. Most people use weekends as time to catch up on shopping errands or household chores. Sundays are as busy as Saturdays. But we humans were designed to require real rest. To recreate. We need to restore our reserves of patience and empathy, kindness and tolerance. We are only human, after all. Turning into robotic caricatures of ourselves won’t help anyone, least of all your elderly parent. So please be kind to yourself at least once every day. Have a long bubble bath. Call a friend. Go for a long walk. Have coffee in that new cafe down the street. See a movie. It matters, and it matters a great deal, that you care for yourself as tenderly as you care for your elderly parent. Otherwise, you are not going to make it.
That’s a promise.


Martie is a professional writer. She looked after her mother for six years. She has written extensively about elder care and her own experience caring for her mother through the aging process.