A version of this article was originally published on BetterAfter50.com.
July is my father's birthday month and I've recently returned from my latest trip to visit him in Florida. Over the past year he's faced a string of health challenges and though we live 700 miles apart, I manage to be his medical advocate and go-to girl.
To help him these past months, I've traveled to Florida frequently, week-long trips when my Dad had been in the hospital, had surgery, regained his strength in a rehabilitation facility, or recuperated at home. I've taken him grocery shopping and to a smorgasbord of appointments with doctors. I am grateful that I've shouldered these responsibilities with my brother (who doesn't live close to Dad either); my brother and I tag team being caregivers.
Once my plane touched down in the Sunshine State my father's needs were my 24/7 reason for being, and caregiving had its challenges. When I returned from these trips, I had to jump back into my life at a full run, so I researched advice for caregivers and a list on Today's Health and Wellness resonated with me. As my caregiving time in Florida rolled along, I noticed myself incorporating certain essentials to maintain my own well-being.
Here's a list of what helped me so I could better help my dad.
1. I brought along something I enjoyed doing.
Whether caregiving time was spent at my father's home, a hospital, or rehab facility, I schlepped along my laptop and a book, or two. Writing and reading are my two favorite activities; I wrote the earliest draft of this essay while my father napped in a trauma step-down unit and I stole a few minutes for myself in the area's waiting room. Reading is my other happy place, so while I staked out doctors by my father's bedside, I let women's fiction take me away like in the old Calgon commercials.
2. I ate well.
Not at first though. At first, food happened at random. I covered part of the daily food pyramid with a coffee on the way to the hospital (half and half is dairy), Mounds bars (did you know coconut can be considered a fruit, a nut, or a seed?), and Reese's peanut butter cups (they're just yummy) from the hospital gift shop. The hospital cafeteria seemed to be closed whenever I had a few seconds to eat real food. After my father's initial medical situation stabilized, I packed a daily cooler with the things I wanted to eat -- keeping it healthy to boost my energy and spirits -- and I schlepped that along with my laptop and books. I loped through the hospital hallways like a Converse-shod pack mule, but I ate fairly well.
3. I slept.
This was tough. When life is rough, sleep can be elusive. Worry can make it impossible. Yet, I did my best to cast off the day's stresses and concerns so I could catch some quality shut-eye. A trick that helped me was coming up with three things I enjoyed during the day. A piece of candy (thanks again hospital gift shop!), a kind gesture from a nurse, or even a close-to-the-door celebrity-like hospital parking spot. Small stuff eased my turbulent mind enough to let me relax. And catch some zzzs.
4. Moving around was my daily priority.
This helped me the most. I'm a runner. While my father was ill, I tried to run early in the morning, before I headed to the hospital or rehab facility. Of course, that didn't happen every day. So when my father napped, I walked the hospital halls to boost my flagging energy and mood. Each day also involved a string of daily phone calls and emails, usually related to my father's present and future medical care, but some to family and friends seeking updates. I made these calls at night, after leaving the hospital or rehab facility. As much as I love to run, I also love to walk, so family calls -- and even voice-recorded emails -- took place during nighttime walks. This nightly habit cleared my head, and surely contributed to my ability to sleep before I had to hit the repeat button on the next day.
5. I accepted one fact: I couldn't do it all no matter how hard I tried.
I didn't want to accept this, but eventually I faced a hard truth: Days and nights spent at the hospital with my father meant I couldn't get to every task around his house. Chores slid. Each visit, I chiseled his laundry mountain back down to a speed bump, wrestled the dust bunnies into submission, paid bills and handled other routine stuff, but I always intended to do more. I had to face the fact that I was only human and each day was still only twenty-four hours.
I found that by taking better care of myself in these small ways, I was more capable to help my father. I love my dad and learned that I also had to share some of that love with myself.