August 25, 2009
Posted: 11:23 AM ET
By Leeza Gibbons, TV/Radio Personality and Producer
Chances are if you are a family caregiver, you either don’t know it, don’t want to know it or you are just so overwhelmed that you could crack at the very suggestion that you should “Take Your Oxygen First”. Yet, there are 50 million husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters out there taking care of a family member or loved one. And here’s the deal….they are dying! We call them the family first responders...just like the heroes we see running into a burning building or toward the scene of an accident when all others are running away, these courageous caregivers show up when families are falling apart, emotions are frayed and finances are unraveling. It’s a noble thing, no doubt…in fact, I think it is one of the single most powerfully defining moments in our lives as human beings, BUT there is a type of martyrdom that is rampant in this group and falling on the sword seems way easier than pulling out a figurative oxygen mask to begin to breathe deeply.
That’s why we wrote our book, "Take Your Oxygen First," to remind caregivers of those instructions the flight attendants give on an airplane. Just like on a plane, in a health crisis, you only have a short time in which to take action. If you put your mask on first, you will be alive, conscious and have enough sanity and energy to help someone else. If you don’t, chances are the two of you will be at risk. I know at first it’s counter-intuitive to think of yourself when someone you love is suffering. The reality is, though, if you don’t nourish yourself; mind, body, soul and spirit, your loved one and you will decline faster.
It’s called compassion fatigue, and my co-authors, friends and colleges Dr. Jamie Huysman and Dr. Rosemary Laird know it well. As the Executive Director of the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation, Dr. Jamie is a psychologist who gives that perspective in our book. Dr. Laird is an MD, a gerontologist, and she gives the medical side of being oxygen–deprived. My Dad, brother, sister, sister-in-law and my kids and I give the family perspective of what is at risk when we don’t take care of ourselves while helping someone we love navigate through a chronic illness or disease.
The bottom line? Ten YEARS. Yep, you can lose ten years of your life because of a caregiving event. People get stressed and depressed. They lose sleep, gain weight, lose their sex drive and gain an aching sense of isolation. Back pain, headaches….you name it and you’ll find it assaulting the mind, body, spirit and soul of caregivers. I think that’s unacceptable.
I saw my sister get depressed, my brother go into denial, my father isolate and I got over-busy. That’s what happens when we are hurting and feel helpless….we go to our corners and pull out what usually works for us. The problem is, in this case none of that is going to help you with your new health reality.
That’s why I began to talk about how to “Breathe, Believe and Receive”. Let’s look at the simple process of breathing with intention. Ten breaths can change your entire physiology. It will oxygenate your brain and tell your body to relax...lowering your heart rate and your blood pressure. Then BELIEVE; this means accessing your faith, your belief in magic, fairies, angels, whatever…. people who believe in something outside of themselves do better after surgeries, and have stronger immune systems. Now is the time to choose optimism. Those “half full” kind of people generate more disease fighting anti-bodies and are better prepared to fight off illnesses of all kinds. It’s a choice, that’s all. Decide to look for the good in yourself and others. Decide to back off the worst case scenario and go straight toward, “What if this works?” Decide that your prayers, your intention, your positive energy – whatever you call it…decide that it will make a difference, because it does! Finally, RECEIVE. Open yourself up to grace and gratitude. Give yourself the first ten minutes of each morning and the last ten at night to let the gifts of the universe into your life. Create a gratitude attitude and know that the things that show up in your life or the things that you have attracted into your life are all there to serve you. When you open yourself up to receiving the gifts the universe is offering you, it is important that you slow down enough to recognize them! So, meditation is the key. This is when you create a “gap” in your brain to rest and receive the answers and insights that are yours for the taking. The key is unclenching your fists, opening up your heart and letting it in. All those people who ask, “Is there anything I can do?” Answer, “YES” and tell them what it is! Receive the love, support and goodness others want to give by first creating a space to let it in.
Finally, I encourage caregivers to remember to apply TLC to their experience:
The T: Be tough enough to ask for help. It is a sign of personal strength.
The L: Be loving enough to forgive yourself and others. You (and they) will make mistakes. You’ll be short tempered, they’ll be selfish. Whatever it is, forgive. That is release and it is the only way to get through this.
The C: Be courageous enough to change the things you can change and compassionate enough to let go of the rest. Sometimes, there is no answer and simply, “It is what it is.” Let that be enough.
My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease about a year and a half ago, but mothering doesn’t end just because the vessel that housed that mom’s heart has died. Moms are eternal and mine finds me when I’m feeling the most vulnerable. “Honey, all you can do is all you can do. Give it your best and that’ll be good enough for God and everybody.”
We constantly want to rewrite our life’s scripts; to go back in and edit something or someone. Every time you get an urge to blame, shame or judge…..take a deep breath. Usually these negative accusations and allegations are self-directed, so imagine that you are putting another frame around those feelings. Maybe it’s like you’re selecting a pair of rose colored glasses to change the perspective; maybe it’s remembering that you can only control your thoughts, but you have 100% custody over those, so decide to think about your situation differently. When you feel depleted, deprived, depressed, stressed and overwhelmed…visualize a mask dropping down from the sky right in front of you… Pull down on the tubing, put it over your nose and mouth, adjust the elastic bands and TAKE YOUR OXYGEN FIRST!
Leeza Gibbons is a TV/Radio Personality and Producer and Co-founder of the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation and Leeza’s Place, Her commentary is a LARRY KING LIVE Web exclusive and her thoughts are her own.
Go Behind The Scenes
LARRY KING LIVE'S Emmy-winning Senior Executive Producer Wendy Walker knows what it takes to make a great story.
With anecdotes, provocative emails, scandals, show transcripts and insights into Walker's long working relationship with Larry King, her new book PRODUCER issues readers an invitation to listen in on the most intriguing conversations on the planet.