Saturday, February 7, 2009

Take a break

It may seem like a selfish thing, but it isn't.

Flight attendants tell us the drill every time we board a plane. It's part of the safety drill. If the cabin loses pressure, oxygen masks will fall from the overhead compartments. You need to put it on and breathe normally. The bag may not inflate, but the attendants always reassure us that the oxygen will be there for us.

The attendants also tell us another key bit of advice. If you need to assist someone like a child or a spouse, you should put your own mask on first. It's key to both of your survival. It's important you get your oxygen mask on, so you can indeed help the person who needs your help.

Long-time caregivers know all about this, but it's a difficult concept for new caregivers to understand. I know. I was there myself at one time as my late husband Jimmy and I tried to adjust to our new life. He was mute and completely paralyzed from a brain stem stroke. Locked-in Syndrome can be a devastating diagnosis as he was essentially a prisoner in his body.

While we worked together to ensure he could communicate through a special system of eye blinks, the heavy-lifting part of managing his care while in a nursing home fell on me. Within the first few months of his diagnosis, I had lost around 30 pounds and was getting worn down. "You need to take care of yourself," a friend told me. "Yes, I know," I told her, but I was clueless.

It took baby steps to realize I needed to take care of myself, in order to take care of Jimmy. When his care stabilized, I decided to take a trip. It was canceled almost immediately, because Jimmy became ill and was hospitalized. Travel insurance was a wonderful investment.

After a couple of hospitalizations, Jimmy stabilized. I didn't. Exhausted and rushing around with my job, I drove my car head-on into a yellow, concrete warning post. It wasn't pretty. I didn't get the warning though, because I dented the rental when I slid into a ditch at a four-way stop. Message received.

I decided to rebook the trip. Jimmy protested my plans. He declared through his eye blinks and tears, "You don't care." He changed his status to Do Not Resuscitate. If something happened to him while I was away, he would die.

I asked him repeatedly to change his status, but he would not. I did not change my plans either. It had been two years since he had his stroke and I didn't know how much longer I could keep living in limbo. I needed to make a decision. While Jimmy was angry at me, he made a decision to look at life-ending issues. I was looking at it from another perspective. I wanted to live.

On that flight to London, the flight attendants did the same thing they always do. They talked about how to put on your oxygen mask. They asked each person to put his or hers on before they assisted their children or family members.

The same rule applies to care giving. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of someone else. It doesn't have to be a grand trip. It may be something as simple as sitting on the porch swing and listening to the creek that flows by your house or taking a nap. You may even want to ask a friend or family member to stop in to visit, while you take a break. No matter what it is take time and refresh.

While your loved one may not always agree with your efforts to take time for yourself, he or she will reap the rewards just like you. Jimmy wasn't mad for long. He was excited to see me and hear about my solo travel adventures. He also quickly had the medical staff change his chart. He decided he wanted to live, too. The Do Not Resuscitate was removed from his medical chart.

Take time for yourself. Many care giving organizations provide tips on how to take a respite. The Well Spouse Association at has a great resource list or consider joining a support group for caregivers in your community. It's important to know you are not alone.

Get your oxygen first (and consider travel insurance when planning a trip).