Caring for someone who is facing a serious health issue can feel like an enormous responsibility. It is easy to get bogged down by the seemingly endless list of tasks demanding time and attention.

Even when the caregiver wants nothing more than to provide their loved one with the assistance they need during a time of crisis, it is not uncommon for them to feel trapped by circumstances they find themselves unable to control.

Responsibilities can easily overwhelm a caregiver who is becoming increasingly isolated and who feels they have nowhere to turn for support. It is not uncommon for caregivers to express feelings of depression and even despair as they look toward a future that holds little promise of relief from the stresses of managing the needs of an ailing loved one. On the other hand, some caregivers seem surprisingly able to strike a healthy balance between their caregiving responsibilities and their rest of their day to day lives. For these individuals, there seems to be a secret formula allowing them to compartmentalize their responsibilities, and divide their attention.

I recently met up with one such individual, a 66-year-old former teacher named Nan, who is caring for her mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. Nan is tall and slim, with an athletic build and bright blue eyes. She retired five years ago when her mother was first diagnosed, and moved back to her childhood home to act as primary caregiver. Initially, she said, the transition was difficult. She was accustomed to doing as she pleased, taking long runs in the park early each morning before work, and rarely cooking a meal unless she was entertaining.

“I ate takeout at least three nights a week,” she said, “and if I didn’t feel like a meal, I’d zap a bag of microwave popcorn for dinner in front of the television.”

Moving in with her mom changed all that.

“I was forced to make choices that took someone else into account,” she said. “I cooked three meals a day, and the stress of worrying over mom left me with no energy. I was scared and lonely, and for a while I was angry. Then I got sad. I kept thinking that this was not how I imagined my retirement would be. I was supposed to be traveling and gardening, not cutting out coupons for incontinent supplies.” Nan can laugh about it now, but she acknowledges that for a while she was in a pretty dark place.

“Then one night I was sitting on the patio after mom went to bed, staring at the moon and feeling sorry for myself. It occurred to me that this is the life I chose. Nobody forced me to come back here. Nobody made me retire or dropped mom in my lap. I chose this life in an effort to make this journey as easy for mom as possible. Once I acknowledged that, it was as though I took back control of my life. I wasn’t stuck doing something I didn’t want to do; I was choosing to do something difficult because it felt right. That change in thinking made all the difference.”

It is important to recognize the power of the words we choose to define difficult circumstances. While it may be true that Nan is caring for her mother because “no one else will,” that kind of thinking sets one up to become resentful over time. By redefining her role as a choice based on her values and her desire to do something meaningful for her mother, she was able to stop feeling railroaded and begin building a life in this new reality.

“Every day provides new opportunities to choose how I respond to a given situation,” she said. “I started examining my motives when I was faced with a dilemma, and that forced me to acknowledge that I really do have options.”

At the same time, this new perspective also gave her permission to make herself a priority again.

“Because I was making conscious choices and not just letting the circumstances drag me along, I started seeing that sometimes it is in everyone’s best interest to put my own needs first,” she said.

For example, instead of hopping out of bed every morning and immediately starting breakfast, Nan made time for a morning run and a quick shower before starting the rest of her day.

“Mom could get up and read the paper, and then we sat down to enjoy breakfast together,” she said. “I was happier, and my energy levels improved dramatically.”

Now that her mom requires more attention, Nan has hired a neighbor to come by three days a week for an hour in the morning so that she can make time for her run.

“I have made a conscious choice to not give up this block of time that helps keep me sane,” she said.

There is no question that it is easy to get caught up in the obligations of caregiving, and to lose sight of one’s own intention in it all. But it is important to force yourself to remain centered, and to be deliberate and fully present every step of the way. Even in a season of service to another, this journey is uniquely yours. Do not surrender your right to choose your path.

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Miller is caregiver coordinator at LTCA of Enid Area Agency on Aging.

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