During 53-year-old Fern’s quarterly medical visit, she noticed the look of frustration on her physician’s face, as if he were thinking, “Why won’t she take care of her diabetes?” Once again, her blood sugars were running very high.
Fern didn’t disagree with him. She wanted to be in better health and nodded when he said, “If you get too sick, then you won’t be able to care for your mother.”
But when it came to the choices she made each day, caregiving clearly took priority over managing her diabetes. Whenever her mother had trouble sleeping, Fern would stay up with her to watch TV. Then the two of them would sleep late the next morning and Fern would miss her insulin dose.
Or her mother would wet the bed, and Fern would scramble to change her clothes and wash the sheets. She would then forget to eat breakfast and take her medications.
Or Fern would remember to give her mother — who also was diabetic — an insulin shot (and even remember to give the dog his insulin) but would be so busy managing other responsibilities that she lost track of her own medical needs.
Her devotion to caregiving was admirable, but the extent of her caregiver self-neglect was alarming. Many caregivers find themselves in the same position — pivoting from one pressing task to the next without pausing to consider their own well-being. It is a case of the tyranny of the urgent overwhelming any forethought and prudence. It is often a recipe for disaster.
Fern’s disaster eventually came with a series of hospitalizations for diabetic ketoacidosis both shortly before and after her mother’s death. She then felt guilty that she hadn’t been at her mother’s side every moment before her death. Fern also regretted that her own health was now compromised.
It is not enough to tell family caregivers, as flight attendants tell airline passengers, “Put on your oxygen mask first.” Too many caregivers fail to practice self-care at all, let alone tend to their own needs before those of their care receivers.
How can they find a better balance between the commitment to caring for loved ones and the necessity of caring for themselves? Here are some ideas.