That is the life of a caregiver. You are always fine because the focus is always on the person that you care for. You are “just fine” because if you think of allowing yourself to be anything other than fine, your legs will come out from under you.

You just keep moving along, all the while knowing that the person that you are trying to convince that you are “just fine” is you. It would have to be you as everyone else in creation can see the dark circles under your eyes and recognize the tension buzzing through your system like an overdose of caffeine.

Let’s assume that it has been a while since someone in your life has had a diagnosis or an accident that leaves you in charge of everything. Not just them and their care, but everything from cooking and cleaning to paying the bills and getting the vehicles maintained. It might be accurate to say that you had a few minutes to adjust to the whole idea before you had to start making some pretty big decisions and it probably has not stopped since then.

It is a sure bet that the personalities involved get all the more interesting as well. Not necessarily those directly involved, but all the folks that sort of buzz around just wanting to cause more drama as if there is not enough already. Oddly enough, the drama that used to be so upsetting in life can become so tiny in the scheme of things when real life rears its head.

It’s right about now that you get indignant. You think to yourself, “Stress? Ha! I laugh at stress. I have everything under control.” You have it all figured out, you are working, you have aides coming in and taking care of your loved one, you shop, you cook, you can find things — life is just fine. Out of the blue, you find yourself in the shower shaking and crying and you don’t even know why. You realize you are not so fine after all.

This is where you realize that you really do come into the picture after all. You have to fit yourself in or you won’t be OK. If you have a counselor, you go. If you don’t have a counselor, you find one. You start to learn that you are still present and need to be cared for also. The only one to care for you is you.

There is a lot of talk about finding balance in your life. When you are a caregiver, balance seems to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It seems that you need to tie together different skills in the hopes that in unison they will deflect some of the stress in your life.

Remember that life was hard to deal with before you were a caregiver. Not that much has really changed. There is just a whole lot more of it and it feels so huge.

Attempt to find balance anyway. Understand that you need to accept help from others with grace and they need to help. It makes them feel good. If all you do is give, you will come to resent it and get cranky. You need to make sure that you also receive from others whether this is in the form of massage, a pedicure, manicure, getting your haircut — all of those hands-on things that make you feel more connected. In an ideal world it would be nice to have your give/receive ratio be equal, but as a caregiver you will not get close to that. Shoot for what feels right for you.

Active relaxation is so helpful including meditation, self-guided relaxation, yoga, Tai Chi, or any form of exercise that works the knots out. Do something that helps you develop an ability to let stress slide off of your body.

It is OK to think about you. Most of the time your focus is on the person that you care for. When you do start to think about your own needs, it feels uncomfortable, like new shoes. Get over it. It is so easy to lose yourself in all of the “stuff.” Re-create a life for yourself. This is the perfect time to take a breath and think about what you really want for you.

Take a break from drama. The inconsequential “who said what about who” stuff that people love to lay at your feet. Just let it pass on by and pay no attention to it.

Swear off guilt forever. I could go on and on about this one. Just suffice it to say you are going to stop the guilt. Feeling it, giving it, or getting it.

Live in the moment and kick back and relax when you can. Not many people understand what an honor it is to be someone’s caregiver. Give yourself a good healthy pat on the back but hurry it up. You have places to go, people to see and things to do.

Gail Gilman is a family life consultant and professor emeritus University of Minnesota. Reach her at

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