Article Written by: Val Brown, FastCompany.com
When my mother was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, in 2014, she was 86 and already at a late stage of her disease. I was hard at work running my brand marketing agency, and knew I’d need to scale things back in order to care for her. I trimmed my client list and planned for the company’s finances to tighten. But I could never have fully readied myself for the experience ahead.
Anyone who’s cared for a loved one with Alzheimer’s knows all too well the pain, frustration, and suffering experienced by both patient and caregiver. Many of us must also hold down a job or keep a business running while managing doctors, home health workers, finances, legal documents, prescriptions, food shopping, equipment rentals and, of course, just spending time with your ailing relative. Then there are the minor details of your own personal life, which can instantly fall to the bottom of your never-ending to-do list.
It was much later that I noticed there was something else–unexpected and unasked-for–to be gained from the devastating experience of watching my mother disappear into someone else: I’d learned several lessons in caregiving that have profoundly changed how I live and work ever since.
ALWAYS STOP TO ASK, “HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS?”
At the beginning of my mother’s decline, I tended to correct every erroneous statement she made:
“I didn’t have any lunch.”
“Yes you did, Mom. You ate 20 minutes ago.”
I would battle it out over and over, as she asserted and I counter-asserted. I finally learned to say nothing, or just “Okay, we’ll give you lunch in 15 minutes”–which she would promptly forget.
This experience was painful, but I think of it often these days, as a reminder to choose my battles. You can’t fight every available fight. It’s more important to save the heavy protesting for misguided thinking that can have a real negative impact. Just winning an argument doesn’t win you much.
FLEXIBILITY IS THE BEST TIME-MANAGEMENT STRATEGY
The best-laid plans for completing long to-do lists often go awry, especially when there’s an emergency–whether it’s when a parent has an accident that requires a hospital visit, or a public-relations calamity with a client. I had a high-profile restaurant client who received the occasional bomb threat. Try prioritizing just three must-do tasks per day when you’re dealing with that. Everything I accomplished beyond that felt like a huge achievement, and I learned not to berate myself for failing to get to non-urgent tasks.
If you make a mistake–and you absolutely will, in business or in caregiving–own up to it and move on. Toward the end of her life, I accidentally gave my mother an extra dose of morphine; she slept for 24 hours straight. Assuming it occurred despite your best intentions, self-forgiveness rather than self-condemnation is the way forward. Mistakes are just about inevitable when you’re emotionally drained and stretched thin. We’re all human, and we do better work when we’re feeling confident and good about ourselves in the face of challenges–rather than beating ourselves up over them.
TAKE TIME OFF
Pride in a relentless work schedule and no vacation is short-sighted and just plain stupid. Caring for my mother, I felt at first that time off was a luxury I just shouldn’t afford, but I soon realized I needed it in order to care for her. It’s a crucial lifeline for staying sane and recharging, which carries into your work life in the form of refreshed perspectives and space for new ideas and strategy tweaks.
That’s all the more true now that digital tools make it possible to be available virtually 24/7; time off should still always mean actually going offline. Whether it’s to do your best work and remind your boss that you’re essential or to endure the stresses of caregiving, you’ll need to unplug every now and then.
REMEMBER THAT IT WON’T ALWAYS BE THIS WAY
As a caregiver, there will be times when you simply want to give up, or cry, or throw something. When you just want to run away and make someone else do it. Likewise with difficult clients or projects. Tomorrow is a new day, and there will be other goals to meet, small victories, or moments of emotional connection or clarity you couldn’t have anticipated–with an Alzheimer’s patient or with a client.
But perhaps the biggest lesson I learned after saying goodbye to my mother and returning, steadily, to my business was this: This is your life, wherever you are, and it’s going by. So stop and step back for a moment. Take a breath. Then take one step forward. Life goes on.