Mental Health and Caregiving—Balancing the Unbalanceable
By Kathleen Hill
Take it from a former caregiver to my father, my mother and mother-in-law: caring for a parent can be depressing. Mom and
Dad were once vital and maybe your rock or the family glue. But now you may feel powerless and hopeless. You can’t fix
their dementia, illness or the inevitable cycle of life. Of course you love them, but you’re tired. It seems as if caregiving
will never end. Taking care of more than one parent or an in-law and a parent in different places can put you over the
edge. If you have had a difficult, or zero, relationship with them, it can feel untenable.
What can you do? I’ve thought about what I did and the “should haves.” Here’s what worked for me:
- On a Saturday, when I travelled to Connecticut from Massachusetts to see my 91-year-old mother, and then drove another
hour to be with my 94 year-old mother-in-law, I would return to Boston and crawl into bed—even if it was 7 p.m.—and
allow myself to feel exhausted and sad. I would try to visit on a Saturday so I knew that Sunday was for my family
and me. I had something to look forward to. When I had to go on a Sunday, I would anticipate the drive and my mental
state the whole weekend.
I would try to divide up responsibilities. Sometimes my daughter or my husband would go to see his mother and I wouldn’t
have to make two stops. I would find another time to be with my mother-in-law with whom I was close.
I thought of ways to make our time together fun and meaningful. After her stroke, my mother had lost her sight and couldn’t
read. She loved poetry so I would read it to her. Something else I did: She felt she had lost track of the friends
she had left who had moved around the country or were even local, but didn’t see. I would call one of her friends
or a family member, and she would “catch up,” even if it was only a two-minute call to hear their voice and “I love
you” or “I miss you.”
I would make sure I touched my mother, whether it was holding her hand, or putting my arm around her. There is far less physical
touch when you’re old and it’s a way to connect and feel loved. I could feel my mother relax and be calmer when I
did this. It made me calmer, too.
Sometimes I would bring a friend of mine along to mix up the visits. It made them less intense (for me) and they kept me
company in the car. I have done the same with friends’ parents.
I talked to a professional. She was terrific and supportive. Whatever emotions I was feeling—there were a ton ranging from
guilt, resentment, fear, stress, loss, ambivalence, sadness, and grief to exhaustion, anxiety, isolation, at times
depression, and my own mortality—I could discuss freely.
I worked hard to make sure that I would have no regrets after my mother was gone. I did everything I could to have made her
feel valued and loved. Was she the best mother? Hardly? But I behaved the way I wanted to be treated and hope my
children will be with me at my mother's age and stage. I was doing it as much for me—to be the best I could be. I
know getting into bed with her in the hospital was comforting as she was dying regardless of ancient history. Today
I feel proud that I was a devoted and doting daughter.
I made sure to exercise. My love is walking so I would get dressed in the morning in workout clothes and when there was a
logical break in my work, take off an hour. I might walk to do errands or Starbucks, making sure those endorphins
were firing. Even on my darkest days, I would force myself to sweat. When my mother was dying after her second stroke
and I was sleeping round the clock in her hospital room, I asked the hospital if I could go to its staff gym to spend
a half hour on the treadmill. I’m pretty sure they had never heard that request. (I left my mother with loving relatives.)
This is what I wish I had done:
Kept a gratitude journal. I thought it sounded hokey, but friends have recently convinced me to write down three things I
am grateful for every day. Another friend and journalist Janice Kaplan recently wrote The Gratitude Diaries, where
she spent one year chronicling her gratitude—something that at first felt awkward but proved to bear out the scientific
studies that being grateful really works. I have started (this week!) writing down three things I’m grateful for
right before I go to sleep. I even catch myself during the day thinking, “that’s something I’m grateful for, maybe
I’ll write that down tonight.” This could have helped me to keep in mind non-parent thoughts, like a loving husband
and children, a fulfilling career, great friends—a very good life, too.
Wrote down my thoughts. This is not the gratitude journal! It would have been a way to express my feelings. Again, this is
another tried and true strategy.
Practiced breathing exercises and meditation. There is science to prove that they can calm you down and move your worrisome
and dark thoughts and mood to calmness and more positive memories. I’ve recently used deep breathing—even three breaths—to
change the situation. While meditation takes work that I’m not sure I’m ready to do (yup, lazy), I do see a difference
in my mood when I do it. That can be a three-minute exercise. Here’s a website I love that has a variety of meditations
and guides you through the practice.
Truly believed that this phase of my life would end. When I had three babies, I thought the craziness—and mental and physical
exhaustion—would be my life forever. But the cliché is right: these stages do end. Elder caregiving may also seem
interminable but life is finite, right?
My mother and mother-in-law are now gone. I was lucky that they had good care and I wasn’t charged with the in the trenches,
day-to-day tasks. Neither one had dementia. But that didn’t make my mental health as a caregiver easier or less depressing.
My parting advice: Allow yourself to feel the way you do, but make the effort--and practice--to make yourself feel better.
It can start with three deep breaths.