Caregivers: Put on Your Oxygen Mask First

By Rev. Gregory Johnson, SMM, MDiv

In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, please put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others.”  How often has each of us heard this message?  In truth, this is the key to successful caregiving—both for professional and family caregivers. It is not selfish to take care of oneself first; in fact, it is mandatory if we truly wish to be effective caregivers. We cannot give away what we do not have. If we are collapsing in any manner— physically, emotionally, spiritually—we are unable to help others.

Think of health care like a three-legged stool. The first leg is the care recipient: someone ill in body, mind and/or spirit. The second leg is the professional caregiver: doctors, nurses, chaplains, psychologists, clergy, home health care aides, or other paid health care workers. And the third leg is the family caregiver: unpaid persons who provide care to both families of origin and families of choice. Many of us know only too well that at times we may be playing more than one of these roles or even all three roles at once. And the latter can indeed cause unimaginable stress, burden, burnout, and even further sickness.  As physical, emotional and spiritual beings, each area of our life greatly impacts the other.

We need to focus on this huge task of caring—and we need to begin with ourselves. A well can hold only so much water before it needs to be emptied, cleaned and refreshed to resume its purpose. Whether professional health care providers or family caregivers, we need to acknowledge our humanity, our limitations, and our needs.

While a trip to Bali for a total spiritual pilgrimage may sound enticing, few of us can do this readily. However, there are many small, incremental steps that we can do:

  • Breathe. Ten deep breaths just for me! This may seem very, very basic. Yet, it is the most often forgotten. Deep breaths connect us to the origin of our lives and we are renewed.
  • Be present. Take advantage of waiting for elevators or sitting in nonmoving traffic. Each is an opportunity to “go within” and to connect with your spiritual center, to relax even if for a few moments, and then to return refreshed and ready for the task ahead.
  • Lean on the team. Your professional colleagues may have very real perspectives on this topic. They, too, need self-care, and often by you asking for help for yourself, you are reminding them and giving them permission to do the same in their lives.
  • Seek therapy. A therapist can help you use the tools of surrender and gratitude in caregiving situations. Remember, surrender does not mean giving up or losing. It is really letting go gently to receive abundantly.
  • Participate in support groups. As we all know professionally, what we cannot do alone, we can do together. Yet, when faced with our own challenges we tend not to take this gift to heart. Many types of support groups exist, both on-site and online.  Consider participating in one; if you are feeling resistant, perhaps just pray for the willingness to allow it to happen in your life.
  • Safeguard your own health and well-being. Visit the doctor, take prescribed medications, get a flu shot, watch your diet, and exercise.

As caregivers, whether professional, family or both, we tend to push self-care to a back seat. But, for the benefit of the persons we care for and for ourselves, we must heed this reminder: You matter. You count. And only you can truly care for you.

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Rev. Gregory Johnson, SMM, MDiv, of New York City, is the senior advisor for family caregiving, Office of the CEO, at EmblemHealth, New York City. For 15 years, he has devoted his ministry to family caregivers as the creator and director of EmblemHealth’s CARE for the Family Caregiver Initiative.