Bridget is a member of our community and occasional attendee to our virtual cuppas. A parent carer to two young adult children at home, Bridget was called on to care remotely for parents who live 200 miles away. All whilst managing her own chronic health conditions.
Bridget found herself stepping into the newly coined carer role of ‘sandwich carer’. A role many of us are taking on, where we find ourselves looking after more than one person.
Often we’re sandwiched between the generations we are providing care for.
Bridget shares how her newly expanded caring role saw a rapid decline in her own health. She highlights the signs to look out for, which can help us to recognise when we’re heading into crisis. What we can do and how we can start to heal again.
Crisis point can creep up on unpaid carers
“The hardest time to pause and tune into what we actually need and what would be best for us, is when we’re so busy and all consumed, with new caring responsibilities coming at us. It’s a chaotic time and our priorities aren’t necessarily skewed towards what’s actually most helpful - taking care of ourselves” - Bridget, Mobilise community
Having experienced carer burnout in the past, Bridget had slowly recovered with new wellbeing routines and had learned to be in tune with her own body’s needs. So it was a real surprise to Bridget when she realised she had slipped to crisis point again.
“Despite everything I knew, I had missed the signs and slipped to crisis point again, ending up with pneumonia myself”
Living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Elhors Danlos Syndrome herself, Bridget had become very good at being aware of her energy levels, pacing herself, having good restorative rest, and healthy boundaries.
And yet, she was still ‘caught out’, when her parents suddenly started requiring care, in addition to the adult children she was already caring for.
“Probably like many carers, I’m built of the stuff that responds to ‘what’s needed?”
And it was for this very reason that Bridget has asked to share her story, in the hope she can help others to avoid the same happening to them. Because despite her lived experience and knowledge about the importance of good self-care and of boundaries, Bridget stepped into her new and enhanced caring role and found herself on the same downward trajectory, ending with pneumonia and a hospital trip for herself.
Crisis point can creep up on us, as unpaid carers. But when we look back at the journey - the resulting crisis is hardly a surprise. Pausing to take notice of things - how we feel - what’s happening and what isn’t happening, can help us to be more aware and take action sooner.
Five ways that crisis can creep up on unpaid carers
Bridget shares the five things that, looking back, she now sees as clear sign-posts to the impending crisis.
1. It can start small
It’s not always a big event that heralds that growth in a caring role. In Bridget’s case, it started with the phone calls from her parents changing shape. Instead of being catch ups, they started becoming conversations to help them manage stress or situations they were not coping with. Something that grew as the weeks passed by.
“It started around Dad’s treatments and medical care, and then his personal care started failing.”
Pay attention to new demands that start being made. Subtle shifts in relationships. Pause every now and then to think about which relationships are helpful and which are perhaps creating more work than they used to.
“How, as natural responders, can we have a little warning sign for ourselves - to notice when other caring needs pop up? How do we know when to say no and to protect ourselves? This is something we should spend time thinking about - having that awareness.”
2. There’s no structure
Bridget would take phone calls as and when, responding in the moment. This can be really disruptive to a day. Someone else is controlling your day - you haven’t had the chance to get on the front foot.
3. Know our bodies
Bridget shared that throughout her growing caring role, she had started to experience strong chest pains. She ignored the pains as they were offset against a massive shot of energy, which was making her feel great.
This means she found herself doing a lot more for her parents and actually thinking ‘this is great’ - I have so much energy!
“Looking back, I now realise that this was a massive shot of adrenaline. I over-rode my knowledge of my health systems - of my own body, because I guess it suited me to think I was doing great.”
It was a couple of weeks before Bridget realised how ill she was, ending up with a trip to A&E and a diagnosis of pneumonia.
Possibly the most effective thing we can do for ourselves is to know and trust our own bodies. And many carers have shared this advice in our Facebook community. That way we know ‘what’s normal’ and can spot those changes sooner. Even if we’re feeling better, like Bridget’s rush of energy - it can be a warning sign.
4. Resistance for outside help
In Bridget’s case, there was resistance from her parents, to receiving outside support. Their new care needs were new to them - not just to Bridget. And ultimately coming to a place where we can accept outside help can feel like a huge step.
5. Role assumption
Already being a carer, could lead to assumptions from family members, about our willingness and ability to give more care to others. It’s important to note that we can stand up to this assumption - but only if we are aware it’s actually been made.
“I was seen as the one in the family that would ‘know what to do’. Being a carer already - and their daughter. I didn’t stop to think if I could do this. I took more and more calls and started worrying more.”
How to start healing after carer burnout
Bridget shares the five things that have helped her to begin healing.
1. Accept our situation and ask for help
“I did use the Mobilise support calls a couple of times, when I accepted my situation was too much for me, and to work out what I could and could not offer.”
“I should have asked for help so much sooner.”
When Bridget finally accepted her situation - that she was indeed very poorly and could not provide any more care at that point, she said she felt a helpful mindset shift. That it was actually OK and essential that she asked for help.
“My shift in mindset allowed me to approach my siblings for help.”
2. Don’t wait for permission to step back
No one is going to give us permission to take a rest. We have to be the champion of our own needs. It was another four weeks - post diagnosis with pneumonia that Bridget finally realised she would not get better without proper rest.
If we need some gentle encouragement to put ourselves first, a chat with a trusted friend or our local carers’ centre can help us get some perspective. Or book a call with our Carer Support team, who are all carers themselves.
3. Acceptance of our feelings
Acknowledging and accepting our feelings is often the first step to making peace and moving forwards. Bridget shared that she explored her feelings through art.
“Although I was in bed a lot, when I did get up, I would do bits of art. Exploring how I felt about my pneumonia, through art”.
Plus, the frustration that we have let ourselves reach this state can come through as anger or resentment. Again, allowing ourselves to accept and feel these feelings, whilst painful, is the most successful way through and out.
“I’ve cried a lot and still do, I’m still working through the feelings. But at the times where I can accept things, I find I can make my best progress. When I stop spending my energy on those emotions, I have energy to heal.”
“It’s recalibrating again. OK, this is where I am. What have I learned, what can I take forward.”
4. Hang onto the things that make us feel better
For Bridget this was art. When we have the energy, using the time to take part in something therapeutic for ourselves is very healing.
“This can feel counterintuitive, as we think we should be using what little energy we have to do the essential things. But, it’s a really strong way to help heal ourselves faster.”
“The thing that makes you feel good, is likely to make you feel better physically too.”
“Don’t be afraid to choose pleasure for yourself.”
5. Notice what our bodies need now
“I noticed that while my body was in trauma, that some of my usual therapies were not helpful. While I previously had gotten a lot out of hands-on therapies such as reflexology, my body was now rejecting those therapies.”
By listening to her body, Bridget was able to best support herself, choosing support and therapy that was healing in her new situation. Just because something used to work, don’t assume it will always be the right thing.