I’m a caregiver for my husband who had a stroke more than a year ago and a recent heart attack. When asked how we are doing, I say “fine.” Then I explain that he is doing “fair” and I am doing “well” and that averages to “fine.” This drives home the point that we are a unit and the well-being of one affects the other.
I’m able to do “well” because I understand the importance of frequent escapes from my caregiving responsibilities—preferably every day. Fortunately, I can leave my husband alone for hours at a time. He’s very supportive of my breaks because, like many people who need help, he doesn’t want to be a burden and he wants me to be happy.
Within the confines of almost any caregiving role, you can find escapes that nourish you and let you continue to have the energy for caregiving. Getting a break may require help from others and asking for that help is an important skill to learn. If you can’t leave your loved one by him or herself for long enough to have a good escape, ask a friend to stop by so you are able to go with a clear conscience.
I have a mental list of pleasurable activities. On the rare days when I don’t want to leave my home, I fall back on stay-at-home respites like reading a good book, listening to music, talking on the phone to a dear friend, or doing a crossword puzzle. But I’ve found that getting out and about is a more complete escape.
When I leave the house, I’m getting exercise in the form of walking—another pleasurable activity for me. And there’s an extra fillip of fun when my escapes give me the chance to practice navigation skills, like learning new bus routes. Here are many of my favorite away-from-home escapes, in order of how often I do them. You can find ideas on the Internet (Google pleasurable activities) or create your own list.
- Spending time with friends, preferably with food, and often with stimulating conversation
- Long walks and conversation with my children or grandchildren
- Going to a movie
- A trip to the library (including reading there for a change of pace)
- Happy hour by myself (easy to feel comfortable, since I live in a lively urban neighborhood)
- Going to my intensive weekly workout
- Gardening (in someone else’s garden)
Psychologists know that engaging in pleasurable activity is an effective way to address depression. These activities also produce endorphins! After a wonderful evening with friends, the effects often last well into the next day.
Many resources are out there to help caregivers with practical and spiritual advice. Just as they tell us on the airplane, it’s important to “put your own oxygen mask on first” and not feel selfish or guilty for doing that. The renewal you experience from your pleasurable escapes will help you be a better and more patient caregiver.
Denise Klein led the King County Area Agency on Aging for 12 years, was Senior Services’ CEO for 10 years, and spent 13 years as a national consultant on aging. She has served on numerous non-profit boards, received two national leadership awards, and is currently the executive director for Wider Horizons, a Village Network community in Seattle. (www.widerhorizonsvillage.org)