I usually learn best by observing, and then doing. I became a teacher in the actual classroom, not while I was studying. For me, caregiving is the same. I had a chance to do a lot of it this past year with my mom, and it was definitely on-the-job training. Every day brought some new lesson, and I got better at it each time.
While taking care of my mom, I also learned about the importance of self-care. Like putting the oxygen mask on first, I found that I needed to take care of myself if I wanted to be a good caregiver. It makes sense, but it’s easy to forget. In all the caregiver manuals I read, burnout is the number one thing that everyone warns against. Take care of yourself if you want to take care of someone else.
Another important lesson for a caregiver is to cultivate your social network. In her book, Passages in Caregiving, Gail Sheehy, who’s written about many of life’s passages, quotes several studies about the effect of friends on one’s health. Here are two that struck me:
“Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.” (Rebecca Adams, University of North Carolina)
“The best antidote to preserve the brain is an extensive social network. It’s how many people one knows intimately and feels comfortable confiding in.” (Dr. David Bennett)
I didn’t have to organize a social network for my mother. She already had one. She has so many good friends who love and admire her, and who dropped by to visit, take her out somewhere, or offer to help me with her care. When she went into the hospital I saw just how many of them there are, as they were all gathered in one place, bearing the most precious gift of all~ their time.
For me, it’s a work in progress. I have lived in so many places, and left many friends behind each time I’ve moved. I have to reach out much further than my mother does to make contact with them, and I often forget to or find reasons why it’s difficult. However, I’m seeing how important it is by the results I get when I do confide in people. By taking the time to build relationships gradually over time if it’s someone new, and staying in regular contact and sharing the ups and downs with family and old friends, I refresh myself, and find the support and encouragement I need.
I’ve always enjoyed writing letters, and always feel good when I do. It’s cheaper than a phone call, more personal than an email, and because of the time I have to reflect, it’s usually more sincere. Since I started consciously cultivating my social network recently, I’ve written about 15 letters. Sometimes, if I remember to, I photocopy them before sending them off. They seem so special, and I like to keep a record of what I said and to whom. They’re like journal entries, pages in my life, only better because they’ve been shared with someone else, not just me.
Self-care is a life-long work. We start out learning to hold our own spoon, brush our own teeth, and walk without assistance. Later, we learn to care for our thoughts and emotions. Eventually we can begin taking care of others in an effective and healthy way. The friends we cultivate become our social network, and provide us with the comfort, encouragement, and strength we need to keep on giving, not just to others but to ourselves as well.