“Caregiving is nothing but confusion when you first start out.”
70-year-old Frank Blood, who has been caregiving for his wife, Mary Ann, for almost two decades, adds, “It took me years and years to learn this stuff.”
“The biggest challenge was knowing what was important and what wasn’t.”
Mary Ann has lived through cancer twice. Most recently, she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition that makes it difficult for her to breathe, as well as vascular dementia, which involves memory loss due to multiple strokes.
The couple has been married for 41 years, and Frank says caregiving for Mary Ann has brought them closer than ever before. He points to one night in particular 10 years ago.
“She had chest pains,” he recalls. “We were driving to the hospital and I looked over at her and said, ‘You know something? This time I’m scared.’ And she said, ‘Me too.'”
“I didn’t think of it again for about a week probably, but I thought, ‘Wow. I’ve never opened up like that. I’ve never said anything like that.’ And since then, we start telling each other what’s in the deepest part of our hearts. … There was another level to go to.”
Mary Ann isn’t able to move on her own, so she relies on Frank to get her ready for the day, take her from room to room, feed her, and make sure she’s comfortable.
Frank also takes all of Mary Ann’s vital signs regularly and even keeps a journal with her daily medical history.
In his nearly 20 years of caregiving, Frank has discovered one thing that may seem counterintuitive: Taking care of himself actually helps him give Mary Ann the best possible care.
“When we take care of ourselves,” Frank explains, “Everything else about caregiving becomes much more joyful.”
As a caregiver, preventively caring for your own health can help head off problems down the road.
Now, Frank is doing all he can to spread this positive message — and his learnings — to other caregivers who may be feeling just as lost as he once was.
To do this, he left his job as a sales rep for a construction company and started Caregiver Harbor. “I offer free phone support,” explains Frank. “A caregiver can call me up and talk about anything they want.” On top of that, he also writes helpful online articles and conducts talks at local libraries and senior centers.
Here are seven of the most valuable things Frank’s learned throughout the years about caring for yourself as a full-time caregiver:
1. Get your energy up and running.
“I get up really early,” Frank says with chuckle. “Between 4:30 and 5:00.”
From there, he takes his morning coffee, goes on a leisurely walk, and then hits the treadmill for some aerobic exercise.
2. Exercise the mind too.
“I have to have that quiet time in the morning before I start out,” adds Frank.
After he’s gotten through his workout, he’ll throw in a 15-minute meditation session to get his mind calm and focused on the present.
3. Pay close attention to your nutrition. (You might forget.)
This is no doubt one of the hardest parts for Frank. “Since I have to cook and feed my wife,” he explains, “either I’m gobbling down food before it gets cold or I don’t eat. The challenge is the amount of time to prepare and eat and clean up.”
In the past, he’d settle on quick bites, such as cookies and candy, to get by. But since he’s prioritized nutrition, he now consumes fresh fruit juices and lots of veggies.
4. Never try to do it alone.
“I don’t hesitate to ask for help,” says Frank. “If somebody volunteers to help me, I never turn it down.”
In particular, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your doctor. They’re there to help you with your health better than anyone. And a good place to start is by getting to know your four health numbers — blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and body mass index (BMI).
5. Manage your time to a T.
“You just cannot let things happen without some kind of a plan,” adds Frank.
Each hour of every day is dedicated to a specific activity — from his morning routine, to taking Mary Ann’s vitals, to catching up on some TV with her at the end of the day.
6. Don’t feel guilty for taking a little me-time.
In the beginning, “I felt very guilty about not spending all my time with my wife,” Frank explains. This is common for caregivers.
Frank explains that it can take a while for a person to develop the confidence to break away once in a while. But as he got more familiar with the nuances of caregiving, he knew that being there for Mary Ann was about way more than physical presence.
7. It’s OK to have your own life too.
Frank keeps his social life healthy by staying active with his church group; he’s also part of the local chamber of commerce and will sometimes volunteer at community events to lend a helping hand.
“I’ll sometimes tell my wife, ‘No, this is my time. I need it,'” explains Frank. “And I have to walk away. That wasn’t possible for a few years.”
At the end of the day, giving others the best care possible requires a commitment to caring for yourself.
Not sure where to start? Take a step forward and visit a health care professional for your annual checkup and learn about your health numbers. Once you have a clear picture on how to better care for yourself, you’ll be able to care for others.
And if you ever feel a little lost along the way, there are people out there like Frank who are always ready to listen and help in any way they can.
“I just want to let caregivers know that if I can do it, you can,” adds Frank. “And you will be very happy if you just don’t try so hard. Let things happen and take good care of yourself.”
Learn more about how to take control of your health at Cigna.com/TakeControl.