Caregiver Mental Health: We are Renewable Resources with Finite Capacity

May 2, 2024

Brad Thompson, M.A., NCC, LPC-S

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so Global Genes reached out to mental health professionals in the rare disease community for their expertise. Brad Thompson, founder of the Caregiver Support Program, has contributed to caregiver mental health efforts provided through Global Genes, and provided his expertise in this contribution:

The most common statement I hear in working with caregivers is –

“I know I need to take better care of myself, but there are just too many things that have to get done and if I don’t do them no one else will.”

Said another way, “I feel selfish doing something for me.”

My harsh response to those statements would be, “So, who’s going to take care of all of those things when you aren’t here because you didn’t take care of yourself?”

Maybe less dramatic but more common – how many of us have lost the joy in creating and supporting the best possible life for the person we care for and the rest of our family because we have simply run our well dry?

When it comes to self-care, I like the visual of the three-tiered fountain and aligning the tiers with the priorities in my life. In my years of working with families, I have noticed one common theme among good people. They don’t find themselves burned out or exhausted because they have bad priorities. They tend to find themselves there because they get their good priorities in the wrong order.

When looking at the picture above, what if I saw the top tier as myself? It’s the smallest of the three bowls, and at the same time it’s the bowl that fills all the others – out of the overflow. So, what happens if the top bowl goes dry?

In my mind, the “small bowl” protects us against the misguided thought that taking some time for myself is selfish. When I look at my regular routine, it’s easy to see that I take less time for myself than I do my significant other, my children/grandchildren, and my work. The question that I need to answer is “Does the time I take for me allow me to be a blessing to all of the other priorities in my life?”

If we can’t quickly point to the activity that fills us and where it fits in our regular routine, I would suggest that we are at an elevated risk for burnout and/or compassion fatigue.

So, what is that activity for you? Maybe it’s a small quiet time to begin or end the day. Maybe it’s a small group (either in-person or virtual) of people with similar struggles, challenges, hopes, and dreams that gives us a sense of community and belonging. Or maybe it’s one person who knows you well enough to provide the arm around your shoulder or the “gentle kick in the pants” at just the right time.

Whatever the strategy you choose, it should accomplish two things for you. One, it should lighten the burden you feel for the responsibility you have. Two, it should replace that burden with hope and peace that will overflow onto every priority of your life.

I believe that’s a form of self-care that is worth finding a place for in my life.

Brad Thompson, M.A., NCC, LPC-S

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