|Finding Balance for the Caregiver
By Lisa Bailey
When my husband Phil’s colorectal cancer returned in
October of 2006, this time in the liver and lungs, I
found myself stressed to the max. With my
full-time job as a kindergarten teacher, my commitment
to my adult children and grandchildren, and keeping tabs
on my teenage daughter, adding compassionate caregiving
to my life’s work demands from me an incredibly
difficult balancing act.
The following sixteen coping strategies have helped me
in my attempts to live a balanced life. Because
caregiving is such a universal task, faced by nearly all
of us at one time or another, I hope you find these
strategies helpful as well.
- Make all choices from a solid base
of integrity. I try to make medical and personal choices
from the base of my Christian faith, which helps free me
from second-guessing myself.
- Be clear about today’s reality.
Don’t imagine things are worse than they are.
Enjoy the good parts of today and don’t let worries for
tomorrow take over your emotions and thoughts.
- Talk honestly to family and
friends. Honest, frequent communication with close
family and friends from the start of diagnosis is much
easier than trying to play catch-up later. I discovered
a wonderful, free Internet service at caringbridge.org
which has allowed me to create a Web site to communicate
regularly about Phil’s health.
- Expect and prepare for tough talks.
Family and friends process the news about a serious
illness at their own pace. They will not accept the
reality of the illness on a schedule that meshes with
yours. This means that sometimes family and friends will
not understand the tension of your caregiving lifestyle,
especially at first. This requires a difficult
conversation about what the illness is, how it will be
treated, and what kinds of side effects will be expected
from the treatment and the disease itself. It is helpful
to have a family conversation with the doctor
present.This provides an opportunity for questions to be
- Learn the medical lingo. It
will help you as a caregiver and a medical advocate to
learn the lingo surrounding your loved one’s illness.
The Internet is a helpful resource, but you need to
learn what Web sites can be trusted and what Web sites
have a hidden agenda. I have included a list of trusted
Web sites I have used for medical information.
However, even with a trusted Web site, don’t believe
everything you read. Not all information will pertain to
your loved one’s situation and you can worry yourself
into a frenzy over some Internet information you have
read. Ask questions of the doctors and nurses.
Check the accuracy of your information if you are at all
troubled or in doubt.
- During treatment, pain or pain
medication might do some talking. Be aware
that pain, stress and pain medications will
release the patient from their social “filter”
and they can and probably will say some
interesting and difficult things at times.
Actually, caregivers do this, too, as stress
lifts our social filters at unexpected
times—forgive yourself as well when this
happens. Listen and be compassionate as best you
can. Children and teenagers will need help
understanding the changes in their loved one’s
personality, especially to know that the changes
are not permanent.
- Control what you can control. Lots
of articles about stress-management advise letting go of
control; however, I have found that being in control of
some areas of my life has greatly reduced my stress.
- Get help with housework—paid or unpaid.
Help with household chores has helped to
make our home a cleaner refuge for Phil as
he recovers and a sanctuary for me.
- Get help with yard work—paid or unpaid.
Our backyard is our vacation destination
this year; we eat most meals on the deck,
enjoy the variety of birds that visit our
birdfeeders, play cards, do art work and
garden. Help with yard work makes this
vacation destination possible.
- Prepare meals in advance and
freeze them. I do bulk cooking and
freeze pre-prepared meals
- Keep bills and insurance paperwork
organized so there are fewer financial
surprises. Make necessary phone calls to
insurance companies, and pay bills, or call
to arrange payments, on time.
- Plan your work; then work your plan.
Be efficient at your outside job and in
taking care of home stuff. Don’t let
things pile up.
- Do three things every evening
before you go to bed—laundry, dishes and
take out the garbage. The morning will be
much more of a gift.
- Let go of what you cannot control.
For me, this means “let go and let God.” I carry a
scripture in my pocket from Jeremiah 29:11 which says,
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the
Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans
to give you hope and a future.” Cancer is what it
is; I cannot change that, but I can and do trust God for
- Nest. Everyone, especially people
who are recovering from illness or injury and their
caregiver, needs a comfy chair—a place to relax and
rejuvenate. Make a comfortable nest for your loved one
and for yourself by adding afghans, pillows, fresh
flowers, candles, books and great music to your comfy
chair area. This is important to do both at your home
and at the hospital should there be an extended stay
- Make comfort food. Think about what your patient is
hungry for, and then consider the details—digestibility,
comfort, correct textures, temperature and presentation.
A compassionate and informative book that I found
helpful as I prepared food for Phil following
chemotherapy and surgery is Laurel’s Kitchen Caring:
Recipes for Everyday Home Caregiving, by Laurel
Robertson, with Carol Lee Flinders and Brian Ruppenthal,
R.D. Laurel speaks with such love for both the
patient and the caregiver and her encouraging voice
revives my spirit for caregiving, especially in
providing good nutrition for healing.
- Enjoy life today. During my husband’s
chemotherapy treatments, our world becomes pretty small.
We find that watching television is an important
diversion, and we have become fans of shows we probably
never would have discovered without some enforced
downtime. We also play cards and Monopoly, put puzzles
together and rent many movies. I found a new
interest in sewing, knitting and watercolor painting.
Phil, a drummer, has never stopped his daily drumming
practice or working at his business from home. We
try to enjoy simple pleasures everyday. We
remember that Phil is a person with interests, not just
a cancer patient. And I, too, am a person with
interests; not just a cancer patient’s caregiver.
- Journal for yourself. There are so many ways
to re-center yourself, but none works as well as
journaling, in my opinion. Even if you have never
kept a journal, starting one now will help you clarify
feelings, manage the stress and plan the work you need
to do as caregiver.
- Keep a vision for the future. None of us comes
here to stay; we know that. But we also know that
we can “grow until we go,” and we should. One
scripture that came right to mind when Phil was first
diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer was “Where there
is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs. 29:18 KJV.
We make plans for our future.
- Give. While I have learned through Phil’s
illness to receive the gifts of help, encouragement,
prayer and love from other people, Phil and I continue
to enjoy giving as part of our marriage. We enjoy
praying for other people, talking to other patients in
the waiting rooms, encouraging others as much as
possible through conversations both in person, in email
and through good, old-fashioned snail mail. Giving keeps
us feeling emotionally and spiritually full and is
always worth the effort.
- Take good care of yourself. Eat good food, exercise
a little, rest well and learn to say no to outside
demands. See your doctor and dentist for checkups.
Get away from the house now and then—even if it is just
to the laundromat to do the bulky wash.
- Release yourself from expectations for perfection.
As humans, we all experience finitude, our “feet of
clay” when we do not have infinite energy, wisdom or
capabilities to manage our lives. This is normal. Get
through each day as best you can, and don’t dwell on
Today Phil is doing well, fighting the cancer with
chemotherapy, prayer and a great sense of humor. I am
blessed to be his partner in this fight. As long as I
keep my balance, I feel I do a good job as a loving
caregiver. I hope these strategies work to help you both
in your caregiving work and in reducing the stress that
comes from this part of life’s journey.
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