Valentine’s Day has always been celebrated as the “most romantic day of the year”, but for caregivers that invest more time in others than they do themselves, it’s not only about sending flowers, chocolates, and a card to your significant other.
During my recent visit to a pain clinic, I met with a group of women coping with chronic conditions including pain, and I noticed a common theme: Many of these women’s chronic conditions began after caring for someone else. Caregivers get into trouble because of love. They love the person for whom they are providing care so much that it is often at the expense of their own health. As caregivers, they can’t care for themselves because they are being selfless and ignoring their own needs. In a way, LOVE can HURT you—that must be why the Valentine’s Day heart has an arrow sticking in it!
Valentine’s Day should be about loving yourself and there is no better way to show yourself some love than by taking care of your mind and body.
It’s Your Time to Prioritize Your Health
As a caregiver, you spend most of your time thinking of and acting for others. This makes it hard to shift the focus back onto yourself. It can even feel selfish. Yet self-care is critical to surviving—making it from day to day. It is even more important to thriving—doing well in life. Each time you fly on an airplane, you are told to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others with theirs. When you are your best self, you can share your best with your family.
Self-care starts with the mind:
When you think of self-care, you might think of exercise and eating well. But how well you feel in general comes from how you feel about yourself, your life and your relationships. It also includes your spiritual life and having a sense of meaning or purpose. You can lose this sense of self when you are caring for a loved one. Even as you love and want to help them, you might feel their illness or injury has taken over your life. Acknowledging that who you were before and who you are now may not be the same. The goal is to work toward accepting your new self as a complete person who has grown from your experiences.
Find meaning in your role:
Caring for someone else teaches you compassion, love, and empathy like no other experience can. You also learn practical skills such as managing time, listening, and communicating. Give yourself credit for bouncing back from challenges and becoming stronger. This can create new meaning in your life and work—and finding meaning is important for your mind, body, and spirit.
Start making healthy choices:
Living a healthy life is one of the main things you can do to feel and be as well as possible. How you eat, move, relax and connect to others are all important to caring for your body, mind, and spirit. If making healthy choices was tough for you before your loved one’s illness or injury, it may seem nearly impossible now when you have so much more to do. But it is possible. You probably know what you “should” do. But the problem is actually doing it, whether you want to stop smoking, lose weight or take time for yourself. Healthy behaviors can help you feel better overall. They can also help you avoid getting sick, or get better when you have a health condition. Making good food choices, exercising, coping with stress and avoiding unhealthy behaviors are important for your lifelong good health. Start developing this healthy lifestyle by connecting with your primary care provider.
Start Building a Strong Relationship—with Your Doctor
For those caring for others, it can be hard to find time to care for yourself. Yet, finding the time to see your primary care provider can be the perfect opportunity to carve out the time you need and focus on your own health. Given the limited time to focus on themselves, caregivers must learn how to make the most out of their doctor’s visit. The main goal should be building a strong patient-doctor relationship – one that helps you improve your quality of life. By being prepared for your annual wellness visit, you can be in control of your own path to healing.
Adapting an integrative health approach:
Integrative health redefines the relationship between the practitioner and patient by focusing on the whole person and the whole community. It is informed by scientific evidence and makes use of all appropriate preventive, therapeutic, and palliative approaches, healthcare professionals, and disciplines to promote optimal health and well-being. This includes the coordination of conventional medicine, complementary/alternative medicine, and lifestyle/self-care.
Identify your goals for living a healthy life:
The HOPE (Healing Oriented Practices and Environments) note is a patient-guided process designed to identify the patient’s values and goals in their life and for healing. This guide consists of a set of questions geared to evaluate those aspects of a patient’s life that facilitate or detract from healing. The goal is to identify behaviors that stimulate or support healing and serve as a tool for delivering integrative health care through a routine office visit. The HOPE note addresses the social, behavioral, environmental, and spiritual components required for managing complex, chronic diseases. Working through these questions with your doctor can further engage the decision-making about your health and healing, putting you front and center in the care plan. Best of all, it brings out your own intuition about what they most need to heal and combines that with your knowledge of the evidence for what heals.
Get the most out of your doctor’s visit:
It is important to know how to get the most out of your next visit to the doctor’s office, especially for caregivers that are experiencing chronic pain. In this day of 15 or 20-minute office visits, many physicians find themselves rushing from exam room to exam room without time to even take a breath. This can make it difficult to spend the time required to manage chronic pain. Here are some strategies to make it easier for both of you.
- Write down your concerns before your visit.
- Stay focused on one thing that’s bothering you. Is it that you can’t sleep because of the pain? You can’t play with your children? You are missing work? Tell your doctor what matters to you in addition to what’s the matter.
- Describe the pain precisely. Saying “it hurts” doesn’t help. Many clinicians use a 1-10 pain scale, with 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt and one being no pain. A more helpful way to describe your pain is to put it into perspective in terms of your normal life. For instance, “I used to be able to walk up and down six flights of stairs with no problem; now I have to take the elevator.”
- Track your pain. For a week before your visit, keep a pain diary in which you rate your pain every couple of hours on a scale of 1 to 10 and what you were doing. Also, track all the pain medications you take. Write down any non-medical approaches you use to cope with your pain.
- Take advantage of your pharmacist if you have medication-related questions. They are knowledgeable about medications, how well they work, and side effects.
- Be honest with your health care provider in terms of alcohol and drug use, diet, exercise, and other providers you’ve seen.
- Bring a friend or family member to your appointment who can take notes. If you are in pain and/ or nervous, you may forget things.
Caregivers have a job that changes constantly depending on their loved one’s health and needs. You deal with expectations and feel many emotions. Being a caregiver can be a long journey with many challenges. Taking good care of yourself is essential to your health and sense of being well. It also helps the loved one you are taking care of. So this Valentine’s Day, when others are concerned with what kind of card or flowers to buy, or chocolate to give, take a moment to give yourself some love and care and book an annual wellness visit.