En español | During our former, regular lives (remember them?) before global pandemics, climate change anxiety and extra-nasty political discourse, most caregivers were already just hanging on. We're the last person on our own list, and, if it's possible, we just slid lower. Is there a “less than zero” position or does it just feel like that some days?
And then came COVID-19, shutting down the outside world and forcing us inside. For some, the thought of working from home or an enforced staycation felt like a welcome interlude. Cutting the commute, bingeing streaming shows, baking bread, sorting closets and being closer to family sounded kind of OK. Until it wasn't. For caregivers, a job already defined by isolation now felt like being a lighthouse keeper in the North Sea.
Human beings aren't good with uncertainty. Give us something to shoot for — a date, a goal, a destination, or even a percentage — and we'll gladly set our navigation. But as I concluded yet another day of tasks undone, piles of laundry, work deadlines missed and doctor's appointments skipped, I felt the familiar sense of caregiver failure. Oh, and did I mention the dog with anxiety attacks who needed to be walked and fed?
With three of four children home, one adult child's significant other and a husband who makes his living on the road (translation: caged animal), life went upside down pretty quickly. The family room, which had always been my office, now became the town square. People felt entitled to use their outdoor voices inside, especially when I was on a video call. And let's talk about that for a moment. What was wrong with a simple phone call? Why did we all have to look at one another when we spoke and suffer the additional torture of seeing ourselves on screen? Did I need hourly reminders of my sallow complexion, furrowed brow and extra chin?
The sheer volume of food required for the home, the laundry mounds, multiple showers and shoes strategically piled for maximum bone breakage astounded me. I marveled at my younger self. How had I once juggled all of these things with a full-time job? How had I done this while nursing my husband back to health after a life-threatening injury? Was I out of practice or simply out of gas?
And then came a final straw. Due to a COVID-19 case, my mother's senior living facility was confining residents to their apartments. My mom was not allowed to even take her little bag of trash to the hall chute.
"What am I going to do?” my mother asked, her voice two notches above normal. “I'll be a prisoner."
"We'll make a plan, Mom,” I said, rolling my eyes to the heavens for an answer. “If we need to, you can always move in here.” I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Our empty nest house was not purchased for our family of six. There was already a child sleeping on a couch; how would we add an aging parent, whose daily living requirements were fairly inflexible? OK, really rigid.
There were so many emotions to mend and tend. Fear and anxiety from my mother, the sorrow of life interrupted from the older kids, college semesters and summer internships canceled for the younger two. Sprinkle in the general concern about the economy, the job market and catching the virus. I felt like the strong man at the circus, hoisting the barbells in the air, muscles quivering while pasting on a smile for the audience. Quietly, I picked up and washed; I cooked and cleaned. And I fumed.
Before long, I began to experience a new level of mom rage. I could have pressed “play” and repeated these now famous phrases: “Take off your shoes” and “Put your own dishes in the dishwasher.” Simple, right? Not really. My low simmer gave way to muttering under my breath and then ratcheted up to casual swearing. I needed a new plan.
We made a schedule for cooking, dish washing and dog walking. I sent a card a day to my mother, printing out poems and clipping newspaper articles. We had COVID rules about shopping and masks and packages in the house. No one was very good about following them. My husband and I (who were slightly more lax than our 26-year-old daughter) felt like two underage kids sneaking beers when we carried an Amazon box inside the house to open, rather than standing in the pouring rain. “Shhhh,” I put my finger to my lips and then laughed at the absurdity of getting busted.
When the frustration reached the point of my taking pictures of violations and shame-texting my family, I decided to just stop. Stop caring so much, stop putting away the dishes or straightening up. I shrugged my shoulders when people asked what was for dinner or if anyone was going to the grocery store.
I decided to caretake less and sustain myself more. Here I was, someone intimately familiar with the concept of placing the oxygen mask on yourself first, and yet I was failing at taking my own advice.
One day, close to tears and feeling like I was doing nothing well, I sat and made a list of the things I needed to do. I share this list in the event it can help you get through a day, a week or an hour in this very uncertain world.
- Self-care solutions
- Step outside more and just look at the sky.
- Take a walk if you are able.
- Ask for help — be honest if you feel yourself mentally struggling.
- Create a master plan for everyone so that all can enjoy a workable, safe, efficient and happy place to live during this time.
- Have a safe place to vent emotions (there are so many great caregiver sites online, including AARP's online community and Facebook Community Discussion page).
- Document this time with a camera or phone.
- Play music — it's such a mood boost when it fixes you in time and place and memory.
- Bake something — yummy scents and tastes make us happy.
- Cry when you need to and then remember laughter is the best medicine.
- Do a good deed for someone.
- Pull a few weeds.
- Make a list of friends to call and begin to reach out.
- Send a snail mail card or letter to someone out of the blue.
- Spend less time on social media looking at everyone's fake fabulous lives.
- Remind yourself that we are all scared, uneasy or feeling a little wobbly. No one's incredible life, fabulous fortune or fame can insulate them from the very human feelings we are all experiencing right now, so forgive yourself.
Caregivers are special, exceptional people, no matter whether you feel that every single day. Remember, as my mother reminds me every time we get off the phone, “Doing your very best is all you can do.” And that has to be good enough.