Self Care is Health Care

Self Care is Health Care

By David W. Hart, Ph.D.


Let’s begin with a story.  I recently met a woman at one of my caregiver support groups who is, along with her sister, caring for their aging mother.  Mom is living with Alzheimer’s type dementia and over the past several years, her behavior has become more combative, agitated, and indignant – all traits that the sisters have had a difficult time managing.  Behaviorally, mom is reticent to follow directions and the once confident parts of her personality have morphed into acute stubbornness.  The sisters have a deep affection for their mother and reported that she was the best mom God could have blessed them with but their love, it seemed, was not sustaining patience.  They were exhausted and befuddled – looking for a cool drink of water in the caregiver desert.


The support group, in their endless wisdom gleaned from lived experience, offered several possible solutions to the problems presented but focused primarily on the topic of self-care as a method for reducing the sisters’ unyielding stress.


After our conversation, I began to wonder more about self-care, what it is, how it’s beneficial, and how to avoid some potential pitfalls.   I thought I’d share my findings with you.


To be certain, self-care includes specific behaviors that allow us to have a nurturing, vital response to everyday stressors that can cause anxiety, depression, burnout, substance abuse, and a host of other negative consequences.  Self-care is an intentional choice to replenish your dwindling physical and emotional reserves rather than deny or avoid the fact that you may be slipping into apathy, withdrawal, or hopelessness.


So then, how does one begin to conceptualize self-care exactly?  You might think of it in terms of the healthcare trinity – mind, body, spirit – and add social and emotional health into the mix as well.


We know that physical activity is a core pillar of overall wellness and is correlated cross-culturally with living longer and with less disability.  Physical activity can be practiced in a variety of ways that doesn’t necessarily require a gym membership.  Yoga, walking, sports, cycling, dancing, and a host of other activities can be conduits for movement.  The general idea is to sweat, either a little or a lot, to release the stress hormone cortisol from the body.  Other physical self-care ideas include good sleep hygiene, sensory stimulation (take a walk in the grass barefoot – I promise you’ll feel something positive), and eating healthy, whole foods, including a Mediterranean style diet.  Please note that a change to your diet or exercise regimen should be discussed with a member of your healthcare team.


Spiritual self-care may or may not require religion, depending on what you believe and how you live.  Spiritual self-care can be about practicing your values, engaging in prayer, meditation, and/or mindfulness, and taking part in activities that have purpose and meaning.  You might make a list of things that make you feel alive and then plan to better incorporate these into your daily or weekly schedule.  I know many of my clients make weekly attendance at their places of worship a priority.  And it fills them up with hope and joy.


Social and emotional self-care is all about belonging.  So much of the discourse in healthcare right now is in regards to loneliness and isolation and how the effects of the two are the same as smoking 15 cigarettes each day.  Self-care in the social/emotional domain is not necessarily about the number of connections we have, it’s more about feeling like we belong somewhere.  A feeling that folks are waiting for us, miss us, and need us to be part of the community.  Finding groups we belong to can be challenging but I know one place caregivers will nearly always feel a sense of belonging: caregiver support groups. These spaces can be more than sources of information and sharing grievances – they can also be sources of friendship, solidarity, and community.


On a final note, not all the musings on self-care are positive.  Most of the self-care activities that I described above are primarily independent, which may imply a do-it-yourself approach.  Caregivers are already burdened by a plethora of stressors and adding additional tasks related to self-care can often result in feelings of failure and low self-esteem when goals aren’t reached, not to mention, that loneliness is a significant consequence of caregiving.  Having to do one more task independently might be a proverbial straw.  Maybe we can start a campaign to rename self-care to we-care.  I digress.


I have a free resource for you.  The South Bay Dementia Education Consortium is hosting a Self-Care Fair on Tuesday, November 12th from 530p-7p at the Redondo Beach Main Library.  Join us to explore how you might practice self-care in a new and meaningful way.  To entice you, this will not be a traditional lecture and you may just find a place to belong.  To register, call (310) 374-3426 ext. 256.

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