Put your oxygen mask on first

My great-grandma Jessie cared for her sister, my great-aunt Elsie, who was bed-ridden for many years. I remember watching her as a little girl, feeding her, turning her, reading to her, brushing her hair.

I recognized it was a great deal of work all those many years ago. But probably not to the extent I do now as an adult.

There was no time off. No vacations. Just caring for her, every hour, every day.

Put your oxygen mask on first. Caregivers. Family.
My great-grandma Jessie with my son, Hunter, in 1999.

November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to recognize and honor those who regularly look after a sick, elderly or disabled person. This can include, among others, those with Alzheimer’s, a chronic illness, cancer, a child with special needs or someone with a terminal illness.

The care given varies depending on the severity of the situation.

I recently had a conversation with someone about being a caregiver for a family member with a mental illness. I reminded them how vital it is that the caregiver also receive care to combat what the Mayo Clinic calls caregiver stress.

Signs of this include: feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried; feeling tired most of the time; sleeping too much or too little; gaining or losing a lot of weight; becoming easily irritated or angry; losing interest in activities you used to enjoy; feeling sad; having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems; abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications.

I have experienced some of these as a caregiver but was too stubborn to admit I needed to stop and take some time for myself. The emotional and physical demands can burden even the most resilient of us.

The Mayo Clinic also lists several strategies to cope: be willing to accept help; focus on what you are able to provide, not what you’re not; set realistic goals and break large tasks into smaller steps; get connected and learn about available resources; join a support group and/or seek support from other caregivers; seek social support from family and friends who can offer nonjudgmental emotional assistance; set personal health goals with sleep, exercise and good eating habits; see your doctor and get recommended immunizations and screenings.

In a recent Facebook post, Jeffrey R. Holland wrote about caregivers and bearing another’s burdens. He said it’s important to “refortify yourself and build yourself back up when others expect so much of you and indeed take so much out of you.”

He continued: “No one is so strong that he or she does not ever feel fatigued or frustrated or recognize the need to care for themselves.”

He also noted that “Jesus certainly experienced that fatigue, felt the drain on His strength. He gave and gave, but there was a cost attached to that, and He felt the effects of so many relying on Him. When the woman with an issue of blood touched Him in the crowd, He healed her, but He also noted that ‘virtue had gone out of him.’”

Holland concluded: “You have to have something in the tank before you can give it to others.”

It reminds me of the often quoted pre-flight safety instructions where the flight attendant says, in the event of a decompression, put your oxygen mask on first before assisting your children or others in need.

Why? Because a lack of oxygen leads to hypoxia which renders one unconscious and can cause brain damage or death.

And you can’t help anyone get their masks on if you’re unconscious. Or dead.

As Benjamin Franklin said: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

So fill your tanks and put your oxygen mask on first.

Your loved ones need you. And they need you at your best.

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