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Five Self-Care Tips (From Caregivers)

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Five Self-Care Tips (From Caregivers)

Not every boss will encourage you to take a day off and go to the beach – or get a massage, or eat a pint of ice cream in front of the television. Even fewer bosses will insist that you take a mental health day. But in the world of hospice care, things are different.

For several months, we've been interviewing hospice caregivers of all sorts for our series "This Is Terminal," in which we initiate conversations around death and dying. We noticed early on that a pattern was emerging as we talked to caregivers – each of them talked about the emotional toll of working in hospice, and each mentioned a strategy that they suggest to employees (or practice themselves) for handling that toll. 

Hard work and heightened emotional states, with little time for self-care, can do more than leave us tired and cranky. They can affect our health, both physical and mental. No matter what your workday is like, making self-care a regular part of life can offset some of life's pressures and help stave off physical illnesses, depression, insomnia, and other long-term effects of overwork. 

We could all benefit from a bit more self-care. Whether you're dealing with a loved one's illness, mourning a loss, or simply having a bad day, we hope you'll find comfort in the self-care tips that surfaced from our This is Terminal interviews.

Russell Hilliard, Music Therapist and senior vice president of patient experience and staff development at Seasons Hospice: Create space for decompression.

Russell Hilliard believes it's vital to set side time for self-care. He and his team earmark a day each quarter for employees to use specifically as a mental health day – and they encourage staff members to make those days all about themselves. Whatever it is that helps them power down and recharge, that's what they're supposed to do with their day off. Russell even suggests that employees take their day without telling family members in advance that they're going to do it. That way, there will be no expectations of them and no last-minute requests for errands or favors. He recommends no chores, no housework, no studying – just relaxation. Russell notes, "If you're my wife and you tell me it's your day off, then I'm going to say, 'Good, can you get the oil changed and take the kids to the dentist and you do all this other stuff?' But that's not a day of self-care. That's a day, instead of caring for our patients, you're caring for somebody else."

Russell himself likes to recharge with music – as much a part of his self-care as it is his job. On the job, he tailors the music he plays and sings to suit the individuals he's working with, and it might not always be his favorite. At home, he shifts gears to listen to the music he loves, finding healing in it. But he stresses that for him, the key is finding a balance between body, mind, and spirit, so he is also apt to exercise and turn to his spirituality to complete his self-care.

Tami, a Hospice Massage Therapist: Seek out connection. Don't bottle up your emotions.

Tami told us that she seeks out family and friends after a particularly hard day, but she may not want to talk to them about what made it hard. That conversation tends to be reserved for co-workers, who understand both the specific situation – they may have been working with the very same patients as she was – and the emotions she struggles with. After talking things over with co-workers, she spends time with friends, knowing how crucial it is to connect with people we love and who love us. "Sometimes, I need to clear my head so that I can remember that 95% of the time, or better, days aren't like this, and that even when those days come, I'm still helping and making a difference in the lives of the patients."

That doesn't mean she bottles up the emotions that come from working in hospice. Expressing grief and frustration and anxiety is part of maintaining a healthy emotional life, and some hospice workers even jump-start that process by taking some time to watch a sad movie or read a story with a tragic ending, knowing it will result in a good cry that can open the pathways for expressing grief over real people and real situations as well as the characters and plotlines in the stories.

A good cry might not be an everyday thing, but a daily routine for hospice caregivers should absolutely include activities that relax them and help them shake off the work day and shift gears to personal life. Without this, the work can feel too intense to continue, but with self-care, many hospice caregivers find it the most rewarding thing they've ever done. Tami told us that even when co-workers leave the hospice where she works, it's typically not for a new field, but for another opportunity in hospice. That love for the job goes hand in hand with healthy habits at home.

Nikki, a Hospice Aromatherapist: Take a walk. Take time to think.

Nobody can tell an individual what the best healthy habits for that person will be, but we all gravitate toward the things that feel good to us. Hospice aromatherapist Nikki finds her peace in walking. This might be a long walk with her dogs or a stroll on the beach. Both are crucial to her as she winds down from a day of work, and she notes, "If we didn't think about ourselves, I think nobody could do the job."

"Josh," a Hospice Chaplain: Find balance.

The self-care strategies we've learned about vary widely. "Josh," a hospice chaplain, told us that when a day at the hospital has been emotionally draining, he might recharge his spiritual batteries by eating ice cream after work – a special treat that brings him comfort and pleasure. On other difficult days, he'd rather turn to the gym for a workout, where endorphins help lift his spirits. They're very different activities, but they balance each other out while nurturing him and making him feel better in their own ways.

Tracy, a Hospice Nurse and Therapy Dog Handler: Take a tip from a dog - take naps and play games.

Tracy, a hospice nurse who works with therapy dogs, told us that even her dogs need self-care. We might not think about the toll that hospice work takes on man's happy-go-lucky best friend, but dogs need breaks just as much as people do. Tracy lets her dogs decide when they're up for work and when they need to sleep, and if a dog is at the hospice but snoozing in his crate, he's off-limits to everyone until he's ready to get up. She also allows time for her dogs to play favorite games – and that might be healing for Tracy, too, because time spent with a favorite animal friend can be one of the most relaxing activities there is.

Of course, everyone does self-care differently. The five different caregivers we mentioned above have five different approaches to self-care, and your own approach might be something else entirely. Self-care isn't about following a script; it's about listening to what your own needs are. Russell pointed this out when he asked, "But what is self-care for you? Is it a walk? Is it a walk in the mountains, a walk on the beach, getting a massage, reading a novel, yoga? How can you do that? And then even more importantly, how can you integrate that into your daily life? So, mindfulness. Breathing with intent. Giving yourself permission to take the scenic route instead of the highway if that brings you joy."

Read More from This is Terminal:

How a Hospice Chaplain Comforts the Dying

Aromatherapy Brings Relief and Memories

Animal Therapy in Hospice