Over the past two years, I have acted as a carer for my father with my role gradually increasing as his lung function decreased from a progressive and terminal lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. His mobility deteriorated and he became reliant on oxygen therapy. This decrease in his independence and confidence meant I spent an increasing amount of time ensuring his safety, well-being, and doing the best I could to improve his quality of life.
When you become a carer, you are needed for more than just being a support to provide food, to provide hygiene care or to be the chauffeur to various hospital appointments – you become an emotional billboard that has to hold up your loved one as they come to terms with the changes in their physical and mental health. The expectations and demands of you inevitably become a heavy duty to hold onto so, not surprisingly, your own mental health will invariably slump. For me this wasn’t an obvious change, in fact, there is something remarkable about how love fights through to give strength in the most difficult of circumstances.
It is important to assess how you are emotionally coping with not only what is expected of you as a carer, but also the situation at hand. Your loved one is in distress or discomfort and it is a great responsibility for you to have to alleviate pain or to witness it on a day-to-day basis. While, in times of hardship, we may feel we’re coping on autopilot, it is crucial to take time to breathe and to mentally process the events taking place. Finding someone to talk to or reaching out to a support group is a great step to open the flood gates in a more controlled manner, rather than letting it build to the point of feeling totally weighed down by the circumstance.
Building these traumatic memories will become tiresome and can cause new symptoms such as anxiety, hopelessness, changes in sleeping patterns and appetite, as well as feeling isolated and lonely. The best thing we can do is pop the kettle on, sit down with a cup of tea, and talk out how we honestly feel, even if it is just recounting prior memories in order to rearrange them in our head so that they become manageable to deal with. What helped me was writing, finding a way in which I could let out these thoughts when at times it felt uncomfortable to speak out.
Thankfully, self-care is of huge relevance right now which means it isn’t difficult to come across simple tools that can assist you in achieving better mental health. There are books, colouring books, magazines, puzzles, jigsaws, and games that now encourage us to stay well and to be mindful on a day-to-day basis. Apps including Headspace coaches through short meditation sessions, and websites such as The Blurt Foundation give honest revealing advice to help cope with mental illness and even the option for subscription boxes to treat yourself.
While it may seem somewhat trivial, these small steps can help introduce positive steps into ensuring your mind rests. Just like you recover your body after running a marathon, it is important to recover your mental health when there are difficult moments and when there is a huge emotional strain taking place each day. Whether it’s taking time for a bubble bath or spending an hour reading your favourite book, colouring in an adult colouring book or listening to relaxing music, it is vital you introduce these small steps to mentally cope with the tolls of such a huge responsibility. It is important to recognise that, as a carer, you are of no use if you aren’t also tending to your own needs. So although you are of responsibility to someone else, you must not forget that you too are just as valuable.
Across the UK today, 6.5 million people are carers, supporting a loved one who is older, disabled, or seriously ill. If you are in need of support, you can get seek help from Carers UK.
Katie Bagshawe is currently pursuing her MSc Psychology degree at Sheffield Hallam University after completing a BSc Computing degree from the University of Cumbria. After acting as her father’s carer in his final years with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, she has become impassioned to do research on the psychological impact of progressive lung disease and hopes to continue doing a PhD in the same research area. You can connect with her on Twitter.