(BPT) - November is National Family Caregivers month. For millions of Americans, it is more than a page on the calendar. Caregiving is a daily part of their lives. It is important to recognize the sacrifices caregivers make for loved ones. If you don’t have personal experience with caregiving, it is difficult to imagine just how hard it can be.
One such caregiver is Patricia Gustin, a member of American Legion Auxiliary Unit 998 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She has been a caregiver since 2015 — first for her mother, and then for her oldest sister. “If I can say one thing that helps one person that would be gratifying,” Gustin said.
Gustin notes that as a caregiver, your life gets turned upside down because you have all of these additional responsibilities and tasks. It’s a lot more than just medical care. Gustin was soon making twice as many trips to the grocery store — one for herself and one for her mother. She was having to step in and manage her mother’s finances as she declined mentally and physically.
It was a painful experience for her. “People don’t know what it’s like unless they’ve been there,” Gustin said. It was especially painful when people would question why she was upset or tell her that she “just needs to get over it.” There is one key thing she wishes people who aren’t caregivers understood better. “Caregiving is a monumental task that a person has to take on. If you are not a caregiver, allow them to talk about their experiences. Try to be patient and listen. Understand that this person is going through a lot.”
The strain of caregiving took a toll on Gustin’s health. She had panic attacks and lost her appetite. It was stressful and upsetting. Her doctor told her that if she didn’t slow down, she would be the next in her family to suffer a heart attack. Fortunately, Gustin’s family understands the sacrifice of caregiving, and is willing to help. Siblings share the grocery shopping and take turns driving their sister to church.
Gustin stresses the importance of self-care. “You are no good to anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself. If something happens to you, imagine what will happen to them.” Gustin practices self-care in many ways. “I take time for myself. You need your own respite. Even if it’s just for an hour. Take time and clear your head.” For her, break time includes watching a funny movie, reading a book or engaging in a hobby. She also makes a point to stop working after 8 p.m. so she can get a good night’s sleep.
Gustin has also sought the help of a professional counselor. “I’m not embarrassed to say that I have a very good counselor,” Gustin said. “She is a rock to me.” Her counselor encouraged her to keep a journal, which allows her to get thoughts on paper. It is a healthy form of self-expression and it allows her to express her feelings. “You don’t have to walk around happy all the time. And you don’t have to walk around with a scowl either. Allow yourself to get your emotions out.”
American Legion Auxiliary members nationwide are focusing on the importance of supporting caregivers. ALA National President Kathy Daudistel has made caregivers an essential part of the Auxiliary’s 2021-2022 administrative year. The organization’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation program promotes the ALA’s mission to enhance the lives of veterans, military and their families. One of the key ways everyone can enhance the lives of veterans and families is by honoring the sacrifices of caregivers who provide for them. This focus is consistent with the organization’s spirit of Service Not Self, as well as its mission to honor the sacrifice of those who serve by enhancing the lives of veterans, military and their families, at home and abroad. The group encourages veterans and their caregivers to explore resources available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs before they need them.
To learn how you can get involved by volunteering or donating to the American Legion Auxiliary, visit www.ALAforVeterans.org.