When I first became my mom’s caregiver, I thought that being a happy caregiver was is a bit of an oxymoron. To those who are thrown into caregiving, it often feels like a thankless job. And whether you’re caring for a loved one alone or with a team of family, it’s emotionally, financially and sometimes physically exhausting. You’re constantly pulled between wanting your own, normal life back and the guilt you feel from wanting your own, normal life back. Unless you’re some magical superhuman being, it’s difficult to find happiness when you’re burnt out and grieving. You’re human. It’s natural.
It’s taken years for me to realize that happiness as a caregiver won’t just fall into my lap. Becoming a happy caregiver is a process. It isn’t a given. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s hard work to be happy. Since time travel hasn’t been invented yet, I can’t change my caregiving mistakes. What I CAN do is share what I’ve learned in the last few years to become a happier millennial caregiver.
#1. Self Care
It’s so, so true that you can’t pour from an empty cup. I would know. I went through the stress of becoming a new mom to twins and becoming my mother’s caregiver simultaneously. In the beginning, I tried to be super mom, super wife, super daughter. And guess what? I was miserable. I was experiencing caregiver burnout and it was very real. If you are unhappy with yourself, it doesn’t matter how many people tell you what an inspiration you are.
According to a 2015 report from the AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are an estimated 9.5 million millennial caregivers. That means that a little more than 11% of America’s millennials are caregivers — most of them caring for a parent or grandparent. And while that’s a lot of us, it also means that the large majority of millennials are lucky enough to not be in our shoes. Cut yourself some slack. This job is no joke.
Take care of yourself.
Go for a walk or hike outside. It’s amazing what some good ol’ vitamin D can do. Get a foot massage, indulgent in a pricey coffee, treat yourself to window shopping. Do something everyday that makes YOU happy. Put away your phone and just have a moment. You deserve it.
Along with taking time out for yourself, you need to physically take care of your body. Easier said than done, right? I’m no stranger to stress eating and sometimes you just need to indulge. But it’s amazing how much better I feel when I eat healthy and exercise. With every vitamin you pop, it’s also a small reminder that YOU are important and YOUR needs matter.
#2. Let Go of Guilt
As millennial caregivers, most of us are just hitting some of the major milestones of adulthood. We’re climbing our way up the career ladder, moving into our first homes, perhaps we’re getting married and having babies. When you suddenly find yourself caring for a declining parent or grandparent, it can be a jolt. It’s only natural to wish for the way things were. Don’t feel guilty for sometimes missing the way your life used to be.
On the other side, guilt also comes from not being able to be with your loved one enough. This person nurtured you and loves you and you feel guilty for not being able to mirror that same dedication and selflessness.
Even though it’s 100% the right move for my mom and our family, I still find myself hanging onto guilt from putting my mom in a memory care facility. I feel guilty when I drop her off. I feel guilt when she calls me in tears that she wants to move back to her old house. I have to remind myself that my mom was adamant when she was first diagnosed that she wanted me to live my life to the fullest and not be a caregiver. It’s important to remember that this isn’t what my mom hoped for either.
The point is, as millennial caregivers, you’re doing the best you can. We were dealt a tough hand. Life happens. Your life is happening now. Give yourself a break. Let go of the guilt.
#3. Realize that Friendships Evolve
When I first became my mom’s caregiver, I had a difficult time relating to my peers. I was in crisis mode and while my friends were worrying about weekend plans, I was worrying about getting my mom medicated and stable. At first, I secluded myself. I didn’t know how to act when I wasn’t my snarky, 20 something self. But that got lonely fast.
Friendships evolve. The friends who can’t hang, won’t. Your real friends will be there for you through the good and bad. Friendship isn’t about being happy all the time. See your friends. Lean on them. It’s okay to not feel “yourself”. Give them the credit they deserve.
#4. Get Support
Even if you feel alone in your caregiving, you aren’t. Support can come from family, friends, online or in-person support groups or even a babysitter so you can get some alone time. You may need time to vent. Don’t let it build up just because you don’t want to be known as a “Debbie Downer.” It’s sometimes hard to integrate your struggles into everyday conversations. I totally get it. I go to a therapist regularly so I can talk through it all.
Just because you are physically capable of juggling it all, doesn’t mean you should. It’s not healthy. Try to delegate tasks to other family members and ask advice. People want to help you. It’s your responsibility to tell them HOW.
#5. Accept Your Parents for Who They Are NOW
Sometimes I get so caught up mourning the loss of who my mother once was that I miss out on who my mom is now. Of course it’s natural to grieve, but you also need to accept this new person. This is especially difficult for degenerative diseases as, by nature, your loved one’s needs are constantly changing. You’re constantly needing to reevaluate who they are.
Although my mom has difficulty dressing herself, she also loves my kids fiercely. She may not know why she lives in a memory care facility, but she remembers tiny details of my childhood. Although we aren’t in an ideal situation, I’m a luckier person to have her in my life.