Self-care: hard but crucial for carers

Self-care: hard but crucial for carers

A blog post written by Khang Chiem, Team Leader, Department of Health and Human Services

Caring for our loved ones is hard work no matter how much we love them. In the 12 years of loving Ben, the most cherished memories I have are those during which I cared for him. My late husband, Dr Benjamin Leske, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2012 and died in 2018.

I learnt that as carers we need to look after ourselves in order to care for others. Some of us have heard of the aeroplane analogy of “putting your oxygen mask on first before helping others”. Many of us have heard some variations of this so many times that it has become a cliché. However, self-care is important. How you do self-care will be unique to you as a person, informed by your values, life experience and preferences. I’d like to share the following 5 areas of resilience which helped me in managing my self-care. I hope that the following will be of some use to you.

  1. Physical resilience: There is plenty of scientific evidence that regular physical exercise and a healthy diet are associated with a range of positive outcomes including improvements in physical health and psychological wellbeing. There is also growing evidence that suggests regular physical exercise also reduces caregiver burden. I would recommend that any physical exercise that you undertake are ones that you enjoy doing to ensure it is sustainable over time.
  2. Emotional resilience: As humans, we are emotional creatures; our emotions, in large part, influence the decisions we make in life. Emotional resilience is about doing things that fill our emotional tank. This may be seeing a movie with our friends, reading a book, or doing a hobby. When our emotional tank is full, we find it easier to find joy in the every day, and to face the hard times. Also, recognising and acknowledging our emotions, both good and bad, are important in being able to respond to circumstances around us.
  3. Psychological resilience: Along with good physical health, maintaining our mental health wellbeing is just as important. While caring for my late husband, I found that seeing a qualified psychologist on a regular basis was critical in building and maintaining my psychological resilience. I also read self-help books that provided me with a vocabulary in understanding myself better and how to put into words my inner world experiences in a more articulate way. For others, it may be journaling or speaking to trusted friends.
  4. Social resilience: There is strong scientific evidence that suggests that healthy connections with families, friends, colleagues and even pets are known to lower levels of anxiety and depression and raise self-esteem. It is tempting to isolate yourself when you’re feeling down or stressed, which can make it more difficult to cope and to recover. By connecting with others regularly, you are able to receive (and give) the supports you need, and the connections can be a source of comfort, inspiration and meaning in your life. I have to say that staying socially connected requires more than just being on social media! It can be having regular coffee catch ups with our friends, being part of a sporting club, or being part of a place of worship.
  5. Spiritual resilience: Spiritual resilience doesn’t necessarily mean holding a religious faith. For me, spiritual resilience is my ability to sustain my sense of self and purpose through a set of principles, values, and beliefs. This required a lot of self-inquiry and reflection. In being able to articulate my and Ben’s values and beliefs, I was able to make difficult decisions as a caregiver that have sat well with me to this day. Another aspect of spiritual resilience relates to identifying practices that anchor us and feed our spirit. For me, this includes regularly practising mindful meditation. For others, this may be being part of a place of worship, gardening, walking in nature, or reading poetry. Do whatever activities that feed and sustain your spirit and soul.

To put these five areas of resilience into practice, I use them as a checklist when I check in with myself and plan my week ahead. I have also found that maintaining these areas of resilience have helped me immensely in the months after losing the love of my life. Self-care isn’t always easy – it can be hard work. But it is so worth it in the end for you and for you loved ones.

Visit www.carerhelp.com.au to find more resources to support carers of persons at the end of life.

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Khang Chiem, Team Leader, Department of Health and Human Services  

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The views and opinions expressed in Palliative Perspectives are those of the authors and are not necessarily supported by CareSearch, Flinders University and/or the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.