Taking Time for Yourself

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Remember that song by Janet Jackson back in the ’80s: What Have You Done for Me Lately? The lyrics went like this:

Used to be a time when you would pamper me
Usta brag about it all the time
Your friends seem to think that you’re so peachy keen
But my friends say neglect is on your mind – Who’s right?

What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah
What have you done for me lately?
Ooh ooh ooh yeah

I want you to take those lyrics, and ask yourself if you could be talking about yourself with those words? As a Family Caregiver, you know how hard it is to carve out time to do the things you once did…from simply reading a book or a magazine article to going out with friends for lunch, to dating your significant other or even spending time with your own children. Caring for older family members, or those with special needs can be both exhausting and time-consuming. Depending on how much help you have from others, you could be providing care up to 24/7! Just ask yourself this question: What have I done for me lately? Ooh ooh ooh yeah!

Finding time to pamper and care for yourself when you are caring for someone else can seem impossible, but I promise that with a game plan, you can care for yourself while caring for another. Building a winning strategy involves collecting information, developing a plan, gathering resources and implementing the plan. It also involves regular check-ins to determine what is working and what is not, and a willingness to make modifications and try different ideas if the first one, or several, are not helping you achieve the desired outcomes.

Let’s say your desired outcome is to find one hour every day to spend alone, relaxing and resting your mind and body. Here are steps you will need to take to accomplish this goal.

  1. Consider the schedule that you and the one you care for currently live with. Think about the needs you are meeting with your loved one, and what other obligations you might have. Keep in mind that sleep and nutrition are ultimate necessities, so you cannot short-cut either of these when carving out your hour. Does your loved one nap regularly? Does s/he eat or take medications on a tight schedule? Does anyone come into the home on a schedule to provide support services like cooking, cleaning, or caregiving services? How does your current schedule align with all of these details?
  2. Once you have collected all of this information, you are ready to develop a plan. Write everything down for a week or two, and then examine the schedule to see if there is a time where you can “step away” and rest for a while. If you cannot find anything, ask a friend, family member, or someone you trust to look with you. Ask this person to push you to find a solution to your dilemma.
  3. Once you have found your window of time, you need to gather resources. Use a pillbox to pre-sort meds so someone else might give them if your window of availability occurs when it’s time for your loved one to take medication. Consider who else might be available for the hour you need if there simply is no safe way to leave your loved one unattended. Hire a professional home care company to provide support if you don’t have any local family or friends who can be available. Designate a space in your home that is your quiet place. Make it comfortable and cozy, and gather those things you want around you during your quiet time. Think about what you need to make this space and time helpful to your rest and restoration, and put it there.
  4. Finally, put your plan in motion! As much as is possible, when it’s time for you to unplug, do it! You might need to start with only 15 minutes or so, to help the person you are caring for learn that they can trust another while you are away. Be firm with the substitute caregiver; they need to figure out how to manage while you are taking some time to care for yourself. You need this time to be a better Family Caregiver, and they are here to help you accomplish this goal! Work up to your hour, and maybe even go beyond it. You will be amazed at how much better you feel, and how much more you can get accomplished with a little break every now and then.

Once you’ve implemented your plan over a few days or weeks, you will want to check in with your support caregivers, as well as the one you care for, to discover how things are running and feeling for them. Sometimes it will be obvious that the plan is not working. Perhaps your substitute isn’t working out or needs you for something every day. Maybe your loved one is more difficult to manage when you are away for the hour over several days. Any number of things can go wrong, but with patience and a willingness to make small adjustments in your plan, you should be able to find a working solution before long that will help you take your “me” time regularly, and you will be a much better Family Caregiver for doing this! And I promise, when you are able to pamper yourself regularly, even just a little bit, you will find yourself saying, “Ooh, ooh, ooh YEAH!”

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Finding Grace

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Having a healthy spiritual life means different things to different people. Chris and I are actively involved in our church, and our church family has supported us through many of life’s joys and sorrows. Churches, Bible study groups, fellowship or small groups and the like can provide accountability, encouragement, suggestions of resources and even respite care support when you need it…but you have to speak up and share your needs within these spiritual circles of trust. Our church family has celebrated one daughter’s wedding, our infant son’s death, the loss of Chris’s mother and many smaller milestones along the way. We love these people for how they have been family to us the last 20+ years, and we wouldn’t survive without them! Our church family takes care of us when we need them most, and we, in turn, take care of others out of the spiritual nurture we receive there.

Chris and I both grew up in Christian homes. We both accepted Christ at an early age and began to grow spiritually from the time we were children. We both entered vocational ministry in our mid-twenties prior to our marriage. We have walked very similar paths in this respect. Today the nurture of our spiritual lives involves daily (at least most days) Bible study, prayer and meditation, regular fellowship with other Christians, mission or service projects, and stewardship of our gifts and resources to represent Christ to others we meet along our life journey.

None of us are perfect in our spiritual lives. My friend Kyle Matthews is a Christian singer/songwriter who wrote a song made famous by Bob Carlisle some years back called We Fall Down. The chorus goes like this:

We fall down, we get up,

We fall down, we get up,

We fall down, we get up,

And the saints are just the sinners

Who fall down and get up.

I fall down…a lot! But when I accept God’s forgiveness for my shortcomings and ask Him for help with challenges or extreme needs, I always find that His provision of grace is exactly what I need to get up again. God’s provision may not be what I asked for, or what I thought I needed, but I can clearly see in hindsight why His way was perfect for my situation. And people who practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditation, Scripture study, journaling, and worship on a regular basis indicate that they experience feelings of hope, peace, and joy. They are generally not depressed and can cope with life’s challenges in healthier ways. Furthermore, many spiritual people are physically healthier as well! By nurturing your spiritual health, you will fortify your capacity to care for the people within your care.

What’s your best spiritual discipline for finding God’s grace? And how do you keep it fresh and vibrant in your life? Join the conversation and share your heart!

Healthy Caregivers Work Out!

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Working It All Out: Finding Balance Between Caregiving and Exercise

When I would travel to visit my mother in her last year, I would pack my workout clothes. I’m certainly no expert, but at 58 years of age, I’ve learned that going for a walk/run every morning helps me deal with the stress of my day, whether I’m at work or being a family caregiver. This was especially challenging when I visited my mom. You see, I needed to get up early to get this done before my day of caregiving began, but she liked to stay up late and wanted me to stay up with her. It was quite the balancing act to make it all work out…and sometimes it totally crashed and burned!

I was up until about 12:30 one night, watching TV with her and then helping her get settled into bed. I finally got to sleep, with an alarm set for 8:30. Usually, when I was there, she would sleep until well after 9:00 am, and sometimes even 10:00 or later. My morning workout took about 45 minutes, so I usually planned to leave the house at 8:45 am and get back by 9:30. Surprise! That morning my mom got up at 8:30 am, so no early morning workout for me. Well, I thought, I’ll get it in later when she takes a nap.

And then the second surprise happened. After breakfast, my mother, 97 at the time, nearly fell…again. She couldn’t understand by why she was so prone to falls, and it worried my brother and me that she was in her house alone for most of every day. But she was stubborn, obstinate, and insistent that she did not need help…until she did, and then it was too late. Fortunately, I was with her that morning when the almost-fall happened. I was visiting for a few days to give my brother a break, and my mother was in her bathroom. As she turned from the sink to leave the room, she cried out and I saw her body begin to collapse. She simply had not remembered to stand up straight and was in a sort of squatting position. I quickly reached around and supported her. She sagged into me, and I coached her to stand up straight, which she finally did. She could not walk at all in those moments, so I had her sit down on her walker’s seat and I pushed her to her recliner in the den, where she spent most of her days. She napped as I wrote this, and I sat and pondered what to do for my mother, and how I would take care of myself today and in the days ahead, while also taking care of her.

I shared my morning’s experience to make a couple of points.

My first point is this: regular exercise does lots of great things for you. It balances your blood glucose levels, releases endorphins (the feel-good hormones), strengthens your bones and builds lean muscle mass. Working out helps you sleep better, too. It focuses you mentally and gives you more energy to be a better caregiver. It also relieves stress, as I mentioned earlier.

Regular exercise should include both cardio workouts, which elevate your heart rate, and weight-bearing exercises that build lean muscle mass and strengthen your bones. There are lots of resources out on the web or in bookstores that can give you ideas of how to structure a workout that fits your schedule. I’m no exercise physiologist, but here are some of my favorite workouts:

  • Brisk walking for 45 minutes (I occasionally do a little light jogging) in good shoes. I put in wireless earbuds and listen to a good book on Audible, or a podcast, or music with a beat that matches my pace. This is something you can do almost anywhere.
  • Yoga. You can do this in the privacy of your home or at a studio if you can get away. Start with a beginner workout if you’ve never done Yoga before. Yoga counts as weight-bearing exercise and helps with flexibility as well as strength.
  • Free weights or machine weights. If you haven’t tried this before, be sure to go to a gym and work with an instructor first. You can really hurt yourself if you don’t know what you are doing!
  • Zumba. I love this because it’s like Latin dancing, but in a studio setting with other people. It’s fun, I sweat and get a great cardio workout, and I feel great afterward!
  • Biking. Our town has some great bike paths, so my husband and I get on our bikes and ride! You can also take a spin class and get the same benefit, but I love the feeling of the wind in my face. You don’t need a fancy bike, but you do need one with working gears and a good bike helmet. Remember, safety first!

These are just a few of my favorite ways to exercise. The important thing is to find something you really enjoy doing, and then find time to do it several times a week. Enlist the help of a friend if the person you care for cannot be left alone, or take advantage of times when s/he is engaged in another activity, like sleeping or watching television, to go into another room. Even doing a few dips, squats, wall push-ups, or planks will make you feel better. If you are just starting out, get your doctor’s permission first, and then try to walk 250 steps every hour. Wear a fitness device like a Fitbit or even a simple pedometer to help you keep track of your movement. But start moving and keep moving to continue moving into your own old age.

My second point is this: always have a back-up plan in case your day crashes and burns. When your original plan for exercise gets derailed, don’t just give up for the day. Know what Plan B is, and implement it accordingly. If your morning workout time gets hijacked, you have an alternate plan for taking care of yourself later in the day. And if your day completely falls apart, which can happen when you are a Family Caregiver, don’t beat yourself up. Just breathe deeply, accept the current reality, and focus ahead on the next day. When I miss my morning walk, my Plan B is Yoga, which I also love. I would do yoga in the next room while my mom was napping.

Chris and I hope you will join the conversation, and share your heart on where exercise fits into your caregiving strategies, or what challenges you face when finding the time to work out.

Eat for Your Health!

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Let’s face it, we can’t live without food! But some foods are our friends, and others might be our enemies. Hopefully, you grew up in a household where someone, maybe your mom, put a healthy meal on the table at least once a day, and maybe more. My mom never let us leave the house in the morning without breakfast, and my brother and I usually ate lunch at school. Dinner was a regular occurrence, and almost always it was a home-cooked meal. We would have roast beef, ham, pork chops, or spaghetti most often. Occasionally there was a salad, though this was not a regular occurrence. There was always bread, and a jar of mayonnaise was a staple condiment! On rare occasions, we had chicken, turkey, or fish, but these were rare because my mom didn’t like cooking them.

My husband and I grew up in the south, where cooks are plentiful and wonderful! Most of my favorite foods are sweet in some way: chicken salad has added sugar, baked beans and spaghetti sauce have brown sugar in significant quantities, and, of course, all those wonderful cakes, pies, and tasty treats! Then there are the drinks served on hot summer days (or all year round…): sweet tea, lemonade, fruit tea, mint juleps, and the like. It’s enough to make almost anyone diabetic! But it’s the culture we were raised in, so it’s all we knew. As adults, we have both struggled with weight issues, mostly because we didn’t know how we should be eating to make food our friend rather than our enemy. Now, to be truthful, God made each one of us differently; to be at our optimal health, our nutritional needs are different from one individual to the next.

 Here are a few nutritional concepts you should consider as a family caregiver:

  1. How does your food make you feel? Do you come away from a meal energized and ready to move? Are you sharp and focused, or are you dragging and tired? Do you need a nap after eating? If these descriptions sound familiar, then what you are eating is not your friend! Try keeping a food journal for a month. Jot down what you are eating, and then set a timer. An hour or two after your meal, ask yourself how you feel, and jot that down. See if any trends emerge. This can build a guide for which foods are your friends, and which are not.
  2. How often do you eat? If you skip breakfast, grab a quick lunch/brunch at the drive-through, and then order carryout for dinner, you’re probably not getting enough nutritional bang for your bucks! You should eat five to six small meals throughout your day if possible. Instead of eating a little breakfast, a light lunch and a big dinner, try to think of it this way. Consider all the food you eat in your day, and imagine putting it all together, then divide it out into five or six portions. This is about what you should be eating. And whether you are into Atkins or Paleo, Vegan or South Beach, Weight Watchers or another dietary option, every “weight loss” plan out there suggests having regular meals and snacks in between. This is why. If you eat five or six times daily and let every “meal” have some complex carbs, lean protein, and fiber, you will have energy throughout your day!
  3. Do you eat enough fruits and veggies? That “apple a day” thing really works! You say you don’t like apples? Try some other fruits, or better yet, have a smoothie for breakfast!
  4. Where do your carbs come from? You should try to limit your simple carbohydrates like bread, cookies, flour-based pasta and bready casseroles. Most of your daily carbs (which give you energy) should come from your fresh or frozen fruits and veggies. Some are better than others, but all have benefits for your health.
  5. Do you have some lean protein at every meal? Lean protein doesn’t have to be animal protein. There are lots of plant-based proteins that are healthy, lean, and tasty!
  6. How much water do you drink each day? I cannot say enough about this important concept. Your body is mostly made of water, so a little dehydration can wreak havoc on your health and energy. Try adding a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice if you don’t like the taste of water. Invest in a water filter if your tap water has added chemicals like chlorine (which most municipal water has). But drink up! I shoot for 100 oz. each day and I usually succeed. Of course, there is a side effect of increasing your water intake: you’ll go to the bathroom lots of times throughout the day. But the upside is that you’ll always know where the public restroom is when you need one! The water flushes impurities from your body, helps with digestion, and keeps you regular if you know what I mean…

I could go on and on, but I’m no nutritionist. I’m just a family caregiver who has struggled over the years with being overweight, fatigued, foggy-brained and depressed. When I began to put together how much difference the food I was eating could make on how I felt in the rush of my day, I began to make changes and discovered the power of food in my life!

By the way, when I suggested in #3 above having a smoothie for breakfast, I don’t mean the ones you can pick up at the drive-thru. Those usually have massive amounts of sugar, because Americans think it has to taste sweet if it’s a smoothie. And, if you didn’t already know this, added sugar can leave you feeling foggy-brained, tired, and slow. But if you make your smoothie at home with a good blender, you can start your day (or have lunch) with fresh spinach, kale, berries, pineapple, coconut water or coconut milk, and some hemp hearts for protein. It’s delicious, and you have a complete meal in a glass! Even better, you won’t feel tired or draggy afterward, and it will keep you going for hours! Here’s my go-to website for ideas on great smoothies:

Oh, and I forgot to mention, I can still have the occasional slice of cheesecake. It’s still my guilty pleasure, but it’s an indulgence, not a reward, and not comfort food. My health and energy are too valuable to give cheesecake that kind of power in my life. It’s my energy, my health, and my life, as well as the health and life of those I care for. When I eat friendly foods, I give better care. It’s that simple.

Join the conversation below, and share your heart on this and other issues affecting family caregivers!

How are you SLEEPING?

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Sleep is a seriously undervalued resource in most people’s lives. When my oldest daughter was small, she would resist naptime and dreaded having to go to bed because she thought she might miss something important. Most people recognize cranky behavior in infants and toddlers as a good indicator the child needs sleep. So what about you? While you might not have time each day for an afternoon nap, do you get enough sleep at night? If not, you might find yourself feeling tired, irritable, short-tempered or even depressed! And as a Family Caregiver, you owe it to yourself and those you care for to put your best foot forward each day when you climb out of bed.

Most people need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to be at their best. This sleep time is necessary for you to function at your best as you care for others. A good night’s sleep equips you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to fulfill your obligations each day.

Your body uses sleep to store energy in cells that will carry you through the next day. While you sleep your muscles, skin, and bones get to rest and rejuvenate. Your digestive system keeps working to flush out what needs to be eliminated and send nutrients to all areas of your body, nourishing and regenerating you physically so you will be ready to go back to work the next day.

Your brain is a little computer in your skull. In order to function at its maximum capacity, your brain must process its daily input and file information where it needs to go, clearing space for the next day’s activities. This happens while you sleep. By freeing up space during sleep time, you may even find your memory improves over time!

Emotionally you will feel more balanced and not as prone to angry outbursts, feelings of depression and hopelessness, or other negative outlooks when you get enough sleep each night. By feeling more rested, you will be able to set the right tone for your day as well as those you care for.

Spiritually, l find that when I feel rested I also feel more aware of God’s presence in my life. I am more focused in my prayer life and when I study scripture I am more open to His teachings. God can work better through me when I am equipping myself for His work, and part of that process involves getting enough sleep.

So what do you need to do to get more sleep? It’s a good question, and the answer is a little different for everyone. Experiment, and try making little adjustments over a period of time. Keep a sleep journal, and make notes about what helps you settle down and get your Zzzzz’s. Here’s my magic formula for getting a good night’s sleep:

  1. My bedroom is cool at night, about 65 degrees. It’s also dark and relatively quiet.
  2. I have a warm mug of unsweetened almond milk at bedtime, with a dash of maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and ginger. It gives me a protein boost that stabilizes my blood sugar through the night. Let me know if you want the recipe!
  3. I don’t watch TV or look at my iPad or iPhone except for a brief check before I turn off the lights.
  4. I avoid caffeine after midday and usually avoid it entirely.
  5. I go to bed at about the same time each night and get up at a consistent time each morning.

I hope this information helps you to improve your sleep as well as your days. I also hope you will share with us what works for you. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of Family Caregivers everywhere, one day at a time. Join the conversation below and share your heart!

Here’s a link to find more tips on how to get a good night’s sleep, click here and here.

Healthy Caregiver

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Caring for the Caregiver is Hard Work!

Do this: take a deep breath, inhaling for a count of 8. Hold that breath for a count of 4, then exhale slowly and see how far you can count. Really push all the air out! At the end of the exhale, inhale deeply again. Repeat this pattern at least 3 times. How do you feel?

When you’re a Family Caregiver, it’s easy to forget about your own needs. In the crush of daily life, when everyone and everything is demanding of your time and attention, things like sleep, food, exercise and prayer or meditation, or even taking a deep breath can quickly get crowded out. A Caregiver who is sleep-deprived, nutrition-starved, stressed out, and socially and spiritually disconnected cannot properly care for another person because their entire being is depleted and exhausted!

Whether the ones you care for are very young or very old, disabled physically or mentally, suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or a related dementia, or another chronic disease or illness, one thing is certain. You must take care of yourself in order to be able to give those you care for the best possible care. Over the next several weeks we will be sharing tips and strategies for improving your own health and wellbeing. To start with, take this survey.

  1. How’s your sleep? Do you get fewer than 7 hours nightly on the average?
  2. Do you eat fast food more than 2 times weekly?
  3. Do you exercise fewer than 30 minutes at least 3 times weekly?
  4. Do you find yourself missing church activities or opportunities to spend time with friends like you once did?
  5. Do you frequently feel tired, overwhelmed, and discouraged?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, then you could definitely benefit from spending some time on improving your health and wellness! If you answered yes to ALL of the questions, DON’T BE DISCOURAGED!! You are not alone, and a healthier you could be within reach just by making just a couple of small changes in your lifestyle. We would encourage you to choose just one of the questions above and begin there. Next week we’ll be talking about Sleep and the Healthy Caregiver, so that might be a great place to begin.

For now, start with this one small thing: just breathe deeply. Try to practice deep breathing throughout your day, and see if you don’t see a change in your attitude and outlook on life. It will make you a better Caregiver, and a better person!

Are You Stressed Out?​

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Family Caregivers are real heroes in the lives of those for whom they care! They juggle busy schedules, manage any number of challenges every day, and handle whatever comes their way. If you care for someone full-time, or if you manage the care from a distance, you are going to have stress in your life

Family Caregivers experience stress in a variety of ways; your success in managing your stress level will have a direct impact on your health and your ability to care for others. Family Caregivers report loss of sleep, poor eating habits, elevated blood sugar and blood pressure, limited physical activity, and a frequent or constant sense of anxiety or failure as manifestations of the stress in their lives. These issues can lead to chronic health problems that will hinder or even prevent your ability to continue providing care to aging loved ones.

Some things I’ve learned over the years that help me manage my stress include regular exercise, drinking plenty of water, limiting caffeine, eating lots of fruits and veggies, and getting at least seven hours of sleep each night. When I go to bed regularly, plan exercise for times when I can control my schedule, and keep a water bottle going all day long, I find I am more patient and calm when someone says or does something that might get under my skin. It’s easier to take a deep breath and remember that those words probably weren’t meant to be hurtful. I am stronger as a person and as a Family Caregiver when I am more centered and focused.

Likewise, when I’m not doing these things, I am out of balance as a person and as a caregiver. I’m more tired, less creative, and quicker to react in anger or frustration. My response time is lagging, and my productivity in all areas of my life suffers. It’s just not a pretty picture!

In order to best manage my stress levels, I also have to assess what I do during my day, to determine what I’m good at and what I really hate doing, so I can find other ways to take the things I’m not good at off my plate. For example, I love to cook, but I hate menu-planning and shopping. I can find resources that will plan my menus for me, and some will even do the grocery shopping and deliver to my home. I avoid pushing the shopping cart through the crowded aisles, and blissfully chop carrots and onions in the comfort of my own kitchen.

To succeed at managing the stress in your own life, you need to first assess how much stress you are feeling. Here’s a link to a Family Caregiver Stress Assessment Tool.

Once you’ve taken the assessment, you should have a good idea of how stressed you really feel. Then you can develop a plan to help you manage your stress and regain a sense of balance and control in your life.

Also, remember that the person you are caring for also has stress in their life. Their stress might be caused by loss of independence, loss of ability, loss of a sense of self-worth, loss of life as they once knew it, or even loss of memories. It is your job as a Family Caregiver to recognize your loved one’s losses and try to ease their sorrow or pain. You can even help them forget their losses for a time, or enable them to discover new abilities in this time of their life. But to find these new paths, to bring light to another’s darkness, you must be at your best. When you get a handle on your own stress, and develop strategies that manage and even moderate or alleviate that stress, you can feel good about putting on your Superhero cape for another day of giving great care and being a Hero for someone special in your life!