Self-Care

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I am greatly saddened at the recent loss of a dear friend, mentor, and professor. Virginia Unverzagt was the director of the Masters of Arts in Pastoral Theology program I attended at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. She was one of the most fun, loving, intelligent, and encouraging people I’ve ever known. She was a true blessing to her friends, family, and students and a reflection of the teachings of Saint Theodora.

In addition to her impressive work, Virginia cared for her 94-year-old father, husband with Alzheimer’s, and adult daughter with special needs. I’m not certain if her tremendous responsibilities contributed toward her early death due to cancer at age 66, but believe it is likely. Studies show that caregiving, and assisting a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease in particular, can reduce the caregiver’s length of life by at least ten years.

The flip side of the last post on this blog about the present need and benefits of caregiving is the attention the caregiver must give themselves. Caregiving quickly drains the caregivers’ energy and should be balanced with good nutrition, exercise, and rest.

Saint Theodora was adamant that her sisters cared for themselves while caring for others. They all devoted their lives to the sick and needy, but she knew that no one could do the Lord’s work if they were not well and strong themselves.

When Sister Josephine passed away, Saint Theodora reminded her sisters not to follow in her footsteps. She wrote, “My dear Sister Josephine did not take sufficient care of her health; she acknowledged it when it was too late. That is the only cause of pain she ever gave me. You must not imitate her in this. You ought to take a reasonable care of yourselves, so as to preserve a life which is entirely devoted to God and to the souls He loves so much” (404).

In fact, Saint Theodora was intolerant of her sisters not caring for themselves. She wrote to Sister Maria in January of 1854, “It is true that you do not complain for nothing, as you say. But I am very far from praising this conduct—you do not complain even when you do suffer. How little humility there is in that! Do not expect my admiration for virtues of that stamp; they are counterfeit”  (365).

Scripture is just as strict in teaching this. “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy” (1 Corinthians 3:17). We are to respect our own health and bodies as well as others.

I know from my own experience the toll caregiving takes on one’s health. When my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six years ago, our doctor told me to take some time for myself two to three days each week. My husband already had the disease at least three years and the doctor said that the undivided attention he needed would deplete my health and diminish my ability to love him if I was exhausted at the end of the day.

I didn’t feel that I needed to follow the doctor’s guidance and wanted to give my husband my all. I didn’t want to be away from him a moment he still knew me. And I felt it was selfish to think of myself.

The doctors say my husband has done exceptionally well with my assistance, but In doing it all myself, my own health has indeed suffered greatly. My “martyrdom” not only has resulted in spending time and money on my own medical needs and time away from productive and enjoyable activities, it’s also caused undo worry for my children.

God loves us as much as the people we care for. We are obligated to care for ourselves first before reaching out to another. As we are instructed before take-off, we must put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.

(Photo of me and Virginia, graduation day May, 2005)

©2013, Mary K. Doyle

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2 Responses to Self-Care

  1. Mary, what you wrote about is called caregiver burnout. As you pointed out, often doctors and nurses will remind caregivers to take care of themselves and we often suggest that they have someone stay with the patient/loved one for a little while so the main caregiver can have a break. If feasible, short-term respite care for the sick person allows the caregiver to re-charge. It’s difficult to leave the person you are caring for because no one else can do the job as well as you, I know, but it’s important for the caregiver to consider their health as well.

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