An adapted excerpt from Courage for Caregivers.
Caregiving is a complex mix of challenge and gift, exhaustion and fulfillment, grief and joy. We enter the fray with a range of motives—necessity, love, duty, service—that mix and shift over time. It is precisely over time that one question surfaces with growing insistence: How will our caregiving be sustained?
“Sustainability” is now a central concept in relation to our planet. How do we live on this earth, with its finite and vulnerable resources, in a way that can be sustained for generations to come? The same question applies to each of us personally: with our finite time and energies, our vulnerable minds and bodies, how do we live out our care responsibilities in a sustainable way over the time that may be required of us?
This question lies behind every form of self-care. We are inevitably pulled in what feel like opposite directions between giving our energies to the care of others and taking time for adequate self-care. How, we wonder, can a realistic balance be achieved between two necessities in constant creative tension?
For centuries, Western culture has burdened us with the notion that caring for ourselves is somehow selfish. Perhaps you are familiar with this formula—“Love God first, then others, and last of all yourself”—interpreted as humility. But if we think of self-love as last and least in importance, in practice it is easily lost. Author Parker Palmer offers a healthier and more realistic perspective: “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put forth on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.
When we are exhausted, the care we offer others suffers as well. And God does not require us to ruin our health to prove our love! Jesus models balance when he withdraws from the crowds to take time apart for prayer and inner renewal.
Self-care is a tender topic for caregivers. Lindsey, the mother of a daughter who was diagnosed with a rare neurogenerative disease at age ten, acknowledges, “It’s so hard to hear, ‘Take care of yourself.’ It’s like someone telling a person who is already completely overwhelmed that there’s one more thing they need to do!” Donna, the mother of a high-needs child, is in total agreement: “How many times are we told to take a bubble bath! The advice is in lieu of real support for caregivers. It just feels like an exercise in shaming. If we don’t keep ourselves fit, it’s our fault if we fall apart. This is not an invitation to extended families or community to befriend those of us giving care in our homes. The expectations just further isolate us.” Lindsey observes that urgings to “care for yourself” often come from those close to her—husband, parents, or siblings who are not in a position to help with actual daily care—expressing their anxiety for her well-being. Without intending to, they project their fears onto Lindsey, one more weight for her to carry!
Yet despite their sensitivity to others’ unrealistic expectations and fears, Lindsey and Donna well understand how crucial self-care is—simply to survive years of intensive home care for children with serious disabilities. The same can be said for those of us who care for spouses with Alzheimer’s, or aged parents with deteriorating physical abilities. When we are in the trenches of long-term or sustained intensive care of others, self-care of some kind is not simply optional.
Adapted from Courage for Caregivers by Marjorie J. Thompson. Copyright (c) 2022 by The
Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust and Church Health Center of Memphis Inc. Material written by
Henri Nouwen @ Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove,