When was the last time you listened to a bird? Noticed tree leaf buds bursting open on a spring day? Enjoyed a child’s laugh (even your own child or grandchild)? Can’t remember? You’re caring too much. That’s right, you are caring for other people too much and cheating yourself out of living your life. You also may be cheating yourself out of your health. Caregiving can be the most exhausting thing you do, emotionally, spiritually and physically. You want to do what is right. But how much is too much? And when it is too much, where do you go for help?

The following scenarios from the people I interviewed for Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories, tell of the toll caregiving can take. Diane and her husband wanted to keep her husband’s aunt in her own home. They had promised to do so years earlier, when the aunt had said, “Don’t ever put me in a nursing home!” So, when the aunt became ill and incapacitated, they hired 24-hour in-home care. The only problem was that, as we know too well, life happens. So do holidays. And that is where finding people to fill shifts can be a problem. One Christmas, Diane nearly gave up. Diane tells about a Christmas where the scheduled workers couldn't show up.

“It didn’t help that I had injured my knee at work, and needed surgery. I found the floor at (the aunt’s) house better than the couch, so I was sleeping there. About three o’clock in the morning she hollered, ‘Anyone out there?’ I dragged up from the floor to see what she wanted. ‘Can I have some water?’ She keeps a glass of water by her bed, but I went and got her some more, and then tried to get back to sleep.

“I no more than fell asleep when I heard, ‘Do you think I could have some juice?’ Then she was yelling, impatient because I was taking so long getting up off the floor. I got her the juice, and barely got back to sleep, when she hollered again. By then it was about five, so I just stayed up.”

Diane knew she was compromising her own health to do what she was doing, but what’s the choice? Sometimes you are next up to bat and you just do it. But - long term? That’s when the real damage is done.

Michelle had been the primary caregiver for several elders in her family. Her beloved step-father’s death was the last. She also struggled, during all of the years of elder caregiving, to help her son, who is bi-polar. Michelle was still trying to recover when I interviewed her for Minding Our Elders.

Her closing words to me were: “The channel running through all of this was my son’s problems. And then my own health. I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression. It has all taken its toll. I still wonder if I made the right decisions. When you’re young, you don’t think that you’re going to grow old and die. You just don’t realize all of this. If I knew I was going to die – as Mom knew – would I do anything different? If I knew that today was my last day on earth, how would I live?”

Diane and Michelle were good, decent people who wanted to help others, especially those they cared for. But they, like most caregivers, often forgot to love and care for themselves. The promises made in days gone by, dusty now because circumstances have changed, can chain us to unrealistic expectations. We make promises when things are good, only to find, years later, that keeping those promises could kill us.

The numbers of ailing elders a family can pile on one caregiver can be daunting (thus, my 20-year stint as a caregiver). Yet we keep doing and doing and doing. We keep caring for others and ignoring ourselves. We keep saying, I can do this one more day. Just one more day. And one more day. Until, after years of self-neglect, we discover the breast lump or have a heart attack or stroke. And then the elders we were caring for need to go into a nursing home, because we can’t be there for them. Worse, we can’t even be there to help them adjust. We are too ill.

Is this what they’d want for you? No. The way out is to look for services.  The Eldercare Locator can be a big help.  Your local Area Agency on Aging can assist you in many ways. Your state website can offer help under "aging." Find someone to guide you. Someone who can point you to respite care. Put yourself on your list of people needing care and don’t put yourself last.

Search until you find someone who can help your ailing elders from time to time, so you can sit on a park bench and listen to a bird sing. See tree buds burst into leaves. Hear - really hear - children laugh. When you go back to your elders, refreshed, with a lighter heart and maybe a story or two, you will all be better off. Even if they complain that the respite worker didn’t make the tea right, or kept the window open too far – even then – you will all be better off. Because then, you may have a chance to stay healthy and vital, so you can continue to take care of your loved ones.

How Long Can I Do This?

By Carol Bradley Bursack

Writer on Caregiver and Elder Support

Minding Our Elders®