Last year in May, I resigned from a relatively stable corporate job to care for my mother full time.
My mom was hospitalized in February 2017 due acute hepatitis B (she was turning yellow with jaundice, wanted to sleep all the time and was losing energy and motivation). By March, I took one month’s no pay leave and managed to get full time help to come over but my friend could not be coming on long term.
In April, she had a fall and on the same day, we went to the hospital emergency room. After having her suffered for a few hours of excruciating wait for doctors, Xrays and tests, the doctor told us she had a hairline fracture from an old injury and the fall could have aggravated that. But there was nothing the hospital could do.
The next morning as I was about to leave for work (I had my friend around to take care of her), she grabbed my hand and for the first time, I saw fear in her eyes. She asked if I really needed to go to work. She was confused and afraid of what was happening.
That instant moment, I made the decision that I would go into office that day to tender my resignation.
My friend stayed around the house to help as I served my notice and she went back to Thailand after my notice was over.
I never though that I would eventually ended up as a caregiver. The job fit totally did not suit me because I dislike housework, cleaning and cooking. I did not think I know how to really care for a person. I am adept in intranets and communication but am totally hopeless with the wok.
But what made it possible was the immense love and gratitude I have for my mother. She is a wonderful woman who sacrificed a large part of her life for us and was literally living for us. I knew it was career suicide to quit my job to do caregiving full time but it did not matter.
My mom now has short term memory loss, and dementia. She is also weak from hepatitis B and a few falls had made her less mobile. She is also starting to become more and more childlike- there was often the glee in her eyes that of a child when I give her something that she loved like her favourite chocolate wafer or to wheel her out for a walk in the park.
It was not always a bed of roses and sometimes I find myself feeling overwhelmed and burnt out.
Here are the things I do that has brought meaning in my life as a caregiver and minimize my burnout:
1. Comprehending the ‘grand scheme of things’
Not everyone can be a caregiver. A few people had told me that most grown children would not give up their freedom and life to care for a parent even though they do not need to worry about money.
One must have what it takes to be a caregiver. At times, you may feel that you may miss out a lot in life because you at home most of the time taking care of someone full time. But that beloved person really needs you (even though through dementia some parents may end up scolding, cursing and even forgetting their child).
Caregiving has enabled me to love my mom the way that she has never had the chance to be loved. She had an abusive childhood and stuck on to an unhappy marriage (I love my late dad but to be fair, they were so wrong for one another). She was my pillar of strength when I was growing up but I could not think of anyone who was her pillar since I was born. Now I have the chance to give her the happiness and joy that she never got to experience at the most part of her life.
At the same time…..
I have always wanted to find the meaning of life so there were periods in my life. I’m the type of person who can read what I considered as a life changing book and then book a plane ticket to Bangkok, take an overnight train then travel to an unknown town in a motor rickshaw of a person who could not speak English… just to meet the revered monk (who also could not speak English but have a number of Westerner monks under him who could). Then I spent about 2 weeks staying in a remote monastery with no electricity in my ‘search for truth’. Eventually, I did find a wonderful teacher who is accomplished in meditation who offered me a lot of guidance. These travels were done most of the time when I was holding my corporate job where I had to take leave to travel.
After some months of becoming a caregiver, I realized that the role allowed me to continue with my personal and spiritual development which I had neglected. In the past, I often wished I had more time and energy to do when I was working a full time job…. and in a strange way, I got what I wished for. And I needed the calmness and mindfulness that came from my practice to be a better caregiver and human being. I also went back to the 8 precept diet to help clear my mind and control food cravings (it is the only diet that I could ever stick to for long periods of time).
It could be the same for you…. that there may be things that you want to do but never had the time and energy to do because you have the demands of a full time job. With some time management, caregiving may provide you with the ‘permission’ to explore your interests and hobbies which you otherwise would not have done so if you have the full time job. I draw a lot of inspiration from mommy bloggers because in many ways, I feel we are quite similar because we are based at home, taking care of those who need our care (mommy bloggers care for babies and I care for an old but adorable baby) and need to juggle multiple responsibilities and make time for what we truly have interest in.
2. Take a break
As a caregiver, you need to take a break. Yes, it is a 24/7 full time task but you need some help from other family members so that you can give yourself a break. Perhaps arrange for some weekday night or a Saturday where you can sneak out and go out on your own or with friends.
Failure to take a break would eventually led to caregiver burnout and negativity. Initially, I would have some of the Saturdays till about 4pm on most weeks where it would be ‘my own time’.
Above: I do not really favor shopping complex and prefer nature. I have driven some 30 to 40 km to a pier in my state on a hot afternoon on a whim. The warm afternoon breeze that continuously blow at me helped to clear some cobwebs in my mind. It took me about an hour to get there, I spent about 40 minutes and then I drove back.
However, eventually I have find other alternatives that reduces the time I need from a break and reduces feelings of burnout which I am sharing below:
3. Find a rewarding hobby/ part time job that makes you happy or give you a sense of accomplishment
The hobby that you do would likely need to be something that you can do from home since you need to be around to watch over your loved one.
For me, it going back to blogging again. I have started blogs for more than 10 years ago and the blogs had gotten a little inactive as I wanted to focus on my demanding day job. I decided to start blogging actively again after I had to settle a huge credit card bill (largely due to my insurance lump sum premium that comes in twice a year) and my unexpected eye consultation expenses. I turned on the monetization in my blogs to be able to earn some money to at least cover my hosting and living expenses.
Blogging has been a rewarding hobby. I love to test out some ideas and apply my knowledge from managing intranets to my blogs.
If blogging is not your thing, you may consider some rewarding hobby such as crafts and creating instagram and Pinterest accounts to share your photos or engage in online community forums such as Quora.
If possible, AVOID TV dramas and Candy Crush Saga or app games as much as you can. Initially you may find the past time of playing addictive games and watching TV to be stimulating and entertaining to an otherwise seemingly boring life. But as time goes by, you would feel more overwhelmed and burnout easily because a lot of mental energy has been expanded as you stay glued to either the TV or your phone. And you would start to feel discontentment, frustration and unhappiness especially when watching dramas where your life may seemed to pale in comparison to the excitement of fictional characters being played out. Too much of it may eventually lead to depression.
I do watch short videos occasionally from YouTube but I keep these to comedy such as The Big Bang Theory, Little Sheldon and MGAG channel (I love their jokes). Or watch some education tutorials.
4. Eliminate or outsource as many tasks that adds on more stress
This I learnt only almost after 1 year. How silly I have been!
Animal lovers may not agree with me but I followed the advise of some of my neighbors and friends. I stopped letting my pet dogs in my home and started giving them dog biscuits instead of cooking for them. I could just let my dogs out because I have a relatively large gated garden where my dogs could run and roam about. There is also sufficient shade in my front and back porches that they would be protected from the elements.
After I did that, I find to my surprise that I have a lot more free time in my hands! I realized that I was spending almost 4 hours a day cleaning my house, preparing and cooking for my pet dogs (I bought meat from the market and cut them up and then cook with rice). And I felt less stressed and overwhelmed because I do not need to only sweep and mop the floor in the evenings and do washing and cooking at times when I felt tired.
The interior of my home got cleaner.
I also stopped cooking because I realized, at least where I live that buying dishes cost almost the same as cooking for myself. Minus the food preparation, clean up, washing, cooking and dealing with oily kitchen floor and surfaces.
Plus, cooking has not really been my forte and interest. No one, including me like the food that I cook.
By doing both the above, I find myself feeling much lighter and have more time in my hands. What do I do with the extra time? Well, I have more time to do what I enjoy like blogging, deepen my spiritual practice… and do some joint activities with my mom as per below:
5. Do some activities that both of you enjoy
I enjoy going for peaceful and meditative walks in the park. Now, I am able to wheel my mom along and make it into a joint enjoyable activity. If the weather permits and there was no other plans on that day, we would go for walks in the park twice a day… once in the morning and another in the evening. Each walk takes up to between 1 to 2 hours. I get a good workout from pushing my mom on a wheelchair and she is completely thrilled and look forward to each of these trips to the park… with childlike happiness. What an irony at times that our roles are now reversed…. that she reminded me of myself when I was a child and wanted to go for an outing.
It is become something that I look forward to as well and now I prefer to go with her than to go alone.
Aside from that, I was starting to take road trips with my mom. I love to travel and as a caregiver, my wings are somehow clipped as I have to stay at home to look after my mom. But what is stopping us from taking road trips together?
Initially we do have outings to shopping malls but I find it is not something that both of us love. By chance I had to run some errand and took my mom along with me (because I cannot leave her at home for too long). She enjoyed it very much and I realized I could make her a part of my outing.
One thing, as my mom is not so mobile, I would take her around and go to places where I know there would be disabled friendly facilities and washrooms. We have taken day trips so far, going by highways, discovering and exploring new places.
Below are just some places we went:
Recently, my friend’s mother had a fall and had to undergo operation as the fall had resulted a fracture on her upper femur (thigh) bone. My friend came back from overseas to care for her mom. On the day of her mom’s operation, I had to go to the airport to pick her up and send her to the hospital.
Both the airport and the hospital are completely wheelchair friendly. I took my mom along as a road trip- which my mom also enjoyed, even though she did get a little tired as we only reached home at night.
With my mom’s short term memory loss, she often does not remember these outings… the details, where we went or if we have gone out at all. But she remembers how she felt. She is noticeably happier and more cheerful with often childlike glint and cheerful mischief in her eyes. I bring along a selfie stick to take photos together so that it would be a beautiful memory for me too.
Being a caregiver is not an easy task. It is definitely not for everyone. But being a caregiver has its rewards and it may be an indirect opportunity for you to be able to pursue interests and hobbies that you have long neglected.
It is important to take care good care of yourself, in physical, mental and emotional health. Explore things that you can take up to make yourself happy and create join activities that both of you enjoy. Once you find something that makes you happy (it ain’t binge watching on Netflix or Candy Crush saga okie), your role may take on a different and deeper meaning.