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There’s a popular internet meme that says:
"Being a parent is easy. It’s like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire and you’re on fire and everything around you is on fire and you sometimes feel like you’re in hell".
As the parent of a 12-year-old girl, this rings true much of the time. Take that, then add the role of being a caregiver to your partner, and words can’t adequately describe the kind of hell you might find yourself in. Don’t get me wrong, both parenting and caregiving can be greatly rewarding. Especially if you can overcome the one major limitation caregivers face: not having enough time.
During my corporate years, I regularly beat myself up for not accomplishing everything on my to-do list every day. I’m not a particularly organised or efficient person, so I’ve used just about every task management system ever developed – without success. However, I do think of myself as capable and able to get things done when others might fail.
Now that I’m older and wiser, and answer mostly to myself, I don’t feel the same frequent level of angst. I’ve learned to be better at prioritising, setting reasonable expectations, and giving myself a break if I fail. To help you make the best use of your day, I would like to share an overview of mine, along with some tips for making your day feel more like heaven than hell.
I am not a morning person. In college, I never scheduled a class before 11 a.m. Now it’s hard not to appreciate the irony that I’m the one getting up at 6:30 a.m. to wake the rest of the household.
These days I get up early, take care of the dog, wake the house up, turn the lights and heat on, check the day’s calendar, occasionally shower, and grab my first cup of coffee. Then it’s time to get my daughter ready for school and drop her off on time, which is typically an hour-long process. Next, I take my morning medications (yes, taking care of yourself is also important), eat some breakfast, drink a second cup of coffee, and plan the rest of the day.
One of the biggest challenges in my life as a caregiver is that every day is different, both in terms of schedule and the unpredictability of my wife’s condition. I never quite know what to expect until I try to get J out of bed. The rest of the morning is typically spent attending to J’s needs with showering, toileting, feeding, and getting to therapy appointments all done as needed.
My afternoons usually focus on attending to J’s issues or appointments, and taking care of the household tasks such as laundry, finances, scheduling, and whatever else you might be able think of. I also take some time to write my blog.
I only have about three hours for all of that as my daughter gets home around 3 p.m. Then my focus shifts to attend to her issues, appointments and homework. I also have to start thinking about dinner. The afternoon is the time where I’m most at risk of not accomplishing a task, since some unexpected problem will inevitably come up and force a readjustment of the schedule.
Running low on energy can make evenings the most stressful time. I try to make sure everyone gets fed (including the dog), that my daughter is prepared for the next day, that the family spends some “quality time” together, and that my wife and daughter get to bed on time.
(The dog goes to bed faithfully at 8:30 p.m. without any intervention.)
By the time that’s all done, and I’ve tidied up from the day, it’s usually around 10 or 10:30 p.m. The next two hours are my time to catch up on any important items I missed earlier, work on projects, or unwind by watching TV.
When all goes well, I’m in bed by 12:30 a.m., which is a normal time for me since I’ve always been a night owl.
The type of day I’ve outlined above occurs about 50% of the time. The rest of the time, something interrupts the flow. It can be an unexpected illness, nightmares, bad weather, or a myriad of other problems that may crop up. In these cases, I find myself getting only a couple of hours of sleep at best and napping during the day becomes paramount.
Every person is different and has a varying tolerance level for stress, uncertainty, and chaos, so it’s difficult to say what will specifically work for you. However, I’d like to share the following tips gained from my experience as a caregiver to help you take the bite out of the day and to succeed.
The most important thing you can do is to know and accept yourself. Acknowledge your own habits, your frustration tolerance, and your energy levels. When you try to push beyond your inherent limits, you will likely only increase your stress levels and fail at many tasks.
Just as with regular exercise, you might improve your stamina and behaviours over time and by using tools such as exercise, meditation, taking naps, eating better, etc., to help you along the way. The bottom line is: the better you take care of yourself, the better able you are to take care of others.
My day requires a lot of flexibility given the nature of my wife’s condition and my daughter’s age. If you’re caring for someone who requires structure, then planning and consistency is your friend. I have a plan for each day, which I manage via a set of online calendars and various lists. I use smart speakers spread around the house to give me instant access to my calendars and lists whenever I need them. I even have a smart speaker in the car.
The system isn’t perfect and I don’t always see my notifications, but it’s convenient, flexible, and importantly, accessible to others who may be helping me.
I always try to be as efficient as possible. If I’m cooking, I’ll make enough for a couple of meals or more. If I’m ordering takeaway, I might order one more dish to ensure an extra lunch or dinner. When I do food shopping, I double up on non-perishable items, so I don’t have to shop every week.
While I like to support local businesses, I do much of my shopping online, ranging from single items that might otherwise require a trip to a hardware store, or to bulk buy items such as paper goods to ensure the house is well stocked.
I still get frustrated when buying perishable items, but I’ve got better at not overbuying and wasting as much.
If I’m being honest, this is one suggestion that I haven’t followed. But I should. I have no backup plan.
My sister helps as much as she can, but if I fell ill or got arrested or abducted by aliens, there may be no one available to immediately fill in for me. It’s an uncomfortable prospect and one that I’m committed to correcting.
Best case, my sister, some select friends, or another family member would step into help. Worst case, I’d have to hire an aide. I say this is worst case because the aide wouldn’t know the daily routines, likely wouldn’t be able to care for both my wife and daughter, and would likely be quite expensive.
The best advice I can offer is to take each day, each hour and each minute as it comes, and remember to breathe. Revel in your successes and let go of the failures. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help from doctors, social workers, family or friends. In the end, time can be on your side.