December is National Family Caregivers Month, so it seemed like a good time to talk about caregiving. In my view, there are three kinds of caregiving: giving care, receiving care and self-care.
Caregiving is not an easy task, no matter whether you’re a family member or a professional. With an uncommunicative person such as one with depression, it practically takes telepathy. At times it seems impossible to know what kind of care is needed. A hug? Encouragement? Alone time? Help with chores? A listening ear? My husband, who is my principal caregiver, does all those things for me.
One thing about caregiving that I learned from my parents is that caregivers need recognition, too. My mother took care of my father all through the years of the illness that killed him. He wasn’t mentally ill, but his physical needs were many. Once my mother came to me and asked if she was doing a good job of caring for him. Of course, I reassured her. The thing is, objectively she knew that she was meeting his needs well. She just needed to hear it from someone else. You can talk about not looking for external validation, but sometimes it’s the kind you really need.
All caregivers need recognition, and the best kind comes from the person for whom they care. That’s not always possible. Many therapists find it inappropriate to get gifts from their clients (mine accepted a small plant graciously). But a simple holiday card can be a nice remembrance. Other recipients of care have something to offer their caregivers as well – simple human connection.
Certainly, those of us receiving care can be irritable or even angry about needing care, but some recognition from us can go a long way toward keeping our caregivers, well, caring. Kindness is reciprocal. I know it’s hard to remember that or to act on it.
I owe my husband – my primary caregiver – more than I can say. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do what I can do – take care of paying the bills and work enough to keep us mostly current, for example. And I thank him, appreciate him, and do what I can for him. I try not to be greedy with his time and efforts – I know he has other things he’d rather be doing or needs to do for his own care. I know I don’t do nearly as much for him as he deserves.
For people who have a mental illness, self-care can be difficult. We know what we should be doing, but it’s often difficult. It feels like self-care is just another chore, on top of all the other things we’re not able to do. If I can’t keep on top of laundry and dishes, how am I supposed to keep on top of showering? If I can’t manage to get out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day, how am I supposed to find time and motivation to exercise?
I know that self-care is important, but I have trouble doing it sometimes. I know I’m capable of it. I’m on my own while my husband is at work, and I managed to keep up self-care while he was out of town earlier this year. But somehow, I never seem to get beyond the very basics of self-care – eating and sleeping regularly. Never mind the manicures, shopping sprees, and bubble baths that some recommend. Those might require getting dressed, going out among people, and spending money. (Bubble baths don’t, of course, unless you count going out to get the bubble bath, which I do count. I sure don’t have any on hand.)
If you’re able to make even modest efforts toward self-care, make sure you give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back. Believe me, you’ve earned it.
The bottom line is this: No matter whether you give or receive care or care for yourself, you need and deserve recognition and appreciation.