Coping with caring

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IMG_7368In my last post, I promised I’d share my coping strategies over the past few challenging years of caring for my parents. Since then, I’ve received some lovely comments on that first post from colleagues and friends who have experienced similar life events and shared some of the ways in which they coped. I’m so grateful for their feedback and hope that by sharing not just mine, but other people’s coping tips, it may help other people going through something similar, now or in the future. Of course, what works for one person may not work for someone else, but you never know – and it’s always worth a try.

  1. Look after yourself

One of the main things that came up in the comments, and one of the messages my friends and family have been keen to hammer home, is that it’s essential to look after yourself first and foremost. Show yourself some compassion – you’re no use to anyone if you collapse in a heap or become a nervous wreck trying to keep all the balls in the air at the same time.

In my case, this might be making sure I get out in the fresh air, walking the dog, before dashing over to hospital or to my parents’ house. I wasn’t always able to fit in two walks a day, more’s the pity, but have wonderful friends and family who looked after Leo while I was spending so much time in hospital. He was delighted (if often rather confused!) to be spending so much time with his canine buddies and it was a weight off my mind to know he was in good hands. The hospital was an hour and a half away in Surrey and I couldn’t possibly have left him in the car while I was visiting, especially towards the end when I had no idea how long I’d be. I often visited my father in the care home, an hour away from my home, at the same time, so I was gone for a good part of the day and knowing Leo was safe and exercised was essential to my peace of mind.

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Making time for yoga was another thing I found really useful. I have to confess I didn’t always manage to find the time, but, on the days I did, it concentrated my mind wonderfully and helped me to switch off from all the ongoing worries. Now I’m slightly further down the line, I’ve signed up for Adriene’s latest yoga course, Move – I’m now 8 days in and it’s proving a real joy, relaxing, stimulating, strengthening and stretching in equal measure. At 20-30 minutes each, the sessions are a little longer than the daily classes I’ve written about before, but if you can manage to set aside the time, it soon becomes a habit you won’t want to miss – and provides a little oasis of me-time in an otherwise hectic day.

Yoga studio

Knitting and reading are other escape routes for me; I may not have had much time for them, but the chance to sit down with my latest knitting work in progress when I got back from a busy day of driving and hospital/care home visiting was another window of mindfulness I looked forward to. Reading was/is usually reserved for last thing at night, not that I usually needed any rocking to as I was so shattered. I try to keep my reading light, but it is another way of switching off and escaping to a world of make-believe when life itself is particularly hard or distressing…

Baby knits collection from Lauren_cropped

  1. Talking is good

Making time to talk to friends and relatives is so important too. It can be hard to find time to update everyone who needs to know what’s going on, especially when your family and friends are spread far and wide, but you definitely need the support. I feel very lucky to have my sister to share this journey with – for much of the past year, we’ve been taking turns to go and over and sit with my father so my mum could get her hair done or do some shopping. We also tried to coordinate our holidays (when permitted!) so at least one of us was around to be there and help out in emergencies. When Mum first went into hospital in October, we decided the only way to cope with being there for our parents and working at the same time was to do blocks of caring time interspersed with blocks of work so we could at least concentrate on one or the other rather than trying to juggle everything. My sister is in full-time employment, albeit mainly working from home at the moment, as most of us are, whereas I’m self-employed, but each has its own issues. My sister spends a lot of her time in Zoom meetings which are hard to reschedule, whereas I can turn work down, but inevitably if you turn work down, you don’t get any income… More on this later. Having two pairs of hands and two brains to share the load is invaluable, especially when backed up by other advice and support from friends and family. Use them to off-load! You don’t have to bear the burden on your own – most people are happy to help, even if it’s only by lending a caring pair of ears.

Of course, talking itself takes time. I have been so grateful for modern Blue Tooth technology, which allowed me to keep family members in the loop during my three-hour round trips in the car. Voice control to ask the phone to call a named contact was also a boon on the winding country roads I was often travelling in the dark. The satnav also came into its own when the roads between my house and my parents’ were blocked and diversions in place during October/November. I’ve lived in this area for 19 years now and know the route to my parents like the back of my hand, but when two or three of the main roads I use were suddenly out of action for weeks on end, it became quite a challenge to find alternatives, often in the dark and in horrendous weather. I had clearly done something very wrong in a past life! Another problem I could have done without…

On the night my mum died, my sister suggested I go back to her house in Horsham rather than be on my own, only for me to find, while driving back, tears streaming down my face, that the M23 was closed and neither the satnav nor Google maps seemed to know anything about it. I ended up driving round and round a new housing estate in the pitch black, in pouring rain, until I eventually got back on a main road and went old school following signposts until I recognised where I was. Sigh.

We found setting up a family care What’s app group a useful idea too. It meant we could post updates about what was going on so everyone was in the picture and we didn’t have to have the same conversation over and over again with different people.

  1. Streamline household chores

Normal life goes on, of course, so if you can streamline your household chores, so much the better. It may seem counter-intuitive to pay someone to do things for you if you’re not earning as much, but if you think what you can earn compared to what you’d pay a cleaner, it’s a no-brainer. I’ve really appreciated having the cleaner come in so at least I don’t need to worry about cleaning and can come back from a hard day’s caring to a gleaming house.

Online shopping is a must too, both for you and the people you’re caring for. During the various lockdowns, I alternated my hard-found delivery slots with my parents, so I knew we were both getting a food delivery at least once a fortnight. Once again, it saves time and effort, physically going out to the shops for the basics. There’s nothing to stop you dropping in and picking other stuff up inbetween, of course. I use Alexa to keep my shopping list these days, so I always have it on me when I’m out and about – no more arriving in the supermarket only to find you’ve forgotten what’s on your list!

I love cooking and usually find it extremely relaxing, but, at times of stress, even I don’t always feel like cooking from scratch when I get back from yet another long day’s caring and a traumatic journey to boot. Having a well-stocked freezer is a real boon on days like this and I’ve been so thankful for all those soups and casseroles I made with my allotment produce in the summer. When I do have time to cook, I try and batch cook, using my slow cooker to make large chillis or curries so I can restock the freezer with extra portions at the same time. You’ll be glad you did. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of stepping through the door to a delicious aroma and remembering you made dinner in the slow cooker that morning and it’s all ready to go. Heaven.

Carrot and coriander soup

I live on my own, so if I don’t do things, they don’t get done! I decided long ago that DIY isn’t my thing, so I’m committed to paying tradesmen to come in and do things outside my remit (or inclination!). This year, I found myself having major house projects done at home at the same time as care crises with my parents: I had the decorator in painting my bedroom when my father went into hospital again in May, and I’d arranged for someone to come and lay an engineered timber floor in the lounge when I arrived back from the US in October, only for my mum to go into hospital that same day. Not ideal timing, but at least I wasn’t doing the work myself and could leave them to it while I was otherwise engaged. Using trusted tradespeople is key, of course.

  1. Keep on top of small jobs

I can’t emphasise this one enough: whether there’s just you, or even if you live with a partner who can share some of the load, it’s vital to keep on top of your own house and personal admin. It’s all very well caring for relatives and looking after their affairs, but you have a life to lead as well. Whether it’s insurance renewals, bills to pay, repairs to organise, appointments to keep or invoices to send, life goes on and you need to make sure it all still happens. I’m a great fan of lists and post-it notes (including Sticky Notes on my computer screens), while others prefer spreadsheets. However you do it, try and do a few things from your list each day, otherwise it can all become overwhelming. I regard myself as pretty organised on the whole, but I still managed to forget to pay my car road tax at the end of November, around the time of my mum’s funeral. Fortunately, I remembered just a few days late, but I was mortified!

Now on to those all-important work-related issues. I’ve mentioned some of my solutions in this post on keeping on top of work when you’re ill as a freelancer (coincidentally written in February 2020, just before Covid struck; I couldn’t have known how prophetic that would be!) but I think they bear repeating here.

  1. Build up a contingency fund

Not easy when you’re first starting out, admittedly, but if you can gradually build up a rainy-day fund, you won’t need to panic if you suddenly have to take time out due to illness, caring responsibilities or even a temporary work drought (happens to us all). The financial pundits recommend savings of 3-6 months’ income, but of course much depends on your individual commitments. Even if you can manage to do some work, having that cushion may help keep the wolf from the door and allow you to concentrate on what you need to do.

  1. Referrals

I’ve definitely mentioned referring clients to trusted colleagues before, notably here. The emphasis is on trusted! By keeping clients in the loop and explaining what’s going in your life, but at the same time passing them on to a safe pair of hands, you’re maintaining your relationship with the client (they’ll be very grateful) and doing colleagues a favour. One of these days, they may well return that favour and pass clients back your way when you’re better placed to help out.

  1. Pace yourself

If you feel you are able to accept some work, pick and choose what you take on. We all have some clients who pay better or are nicer to work with than others. This matters when time is short! You really don’t want to be faffing about with horrible pdf conversions or complicated formatting when you have limited time available, even if you charge extra for them. Even masses of research can be a step too far: better to stick to subjects and clients you’re familiar with. Urgent jobs have been a no-no for me over the last few months too, as I couldn’t guarantee that something wouldn’t crop up to stop me returning them on time. Long jobs were also tricky for the same reason; I just didn’t know how much time I’d have available to work in any given week. Make sure you enjoy the subject matter too: if you have limited time, you want to know you’ll enjoy the release of immersing yourself in work again, not struggle with something you don’t like! If you use speech recognition software (Dragon), this can help you achieve a lot in a short time. Perhaps not the time to experiment when you’re plunged into chaos, but definitely something to consider for the future.

  1. Consider outsourcing

Another option is to outsource work to trusted colleagues. This means you’ll have to reserve time for proof-reading/editing so your client receives the standard/quality they’ve come to expect from you and to ensure consistency with previous work. However, it can keep you in control and in the loop with that particular client, as well as bringing in some income while taking less time than the translation proper. Just make sure the client has no objection to you outsourcing and pass on any confidentiality requirements to your subcontractor.

  1. Or even editing?

Taking on editing work is another possibility. I don’t mean PEMT, which can be soul-destroying and time-consuming. Probably not what you need when you’re short of time and stressed anyway! But working with known and trusted agencies or colleagues is an altogether different proposition. Charging on an hourly rate means you usually know in advance how much time you’ll have to set aside – assuming you’re working with people producing quality translations in the first place, of course. Again, this will keep your brain in gear and you in the work loop. Even working with colleagues on a quid pro quo basis can be helpful, earning you editing points for future assignments.

And, most important of all, whether you’re editing your own work or other people’s, DO make time to do your final read-through the next day. Especially when you’re tired or your mind is full of other things,  giving yourself that breathing space and looking at what you’ve written with a fresh pair of eyes makes all the difference.

  1. Be prepared

Like the old scouting adage, working when you’re a carer, even on a remote or part-time basis, means that preparation is all. I always had an overnight bag packed and ready just in case an emergency call came in; living an hour away from my parents meant time was often of the essence. I made sure I took my laptop with me whenever I went over in case I ended up staying. If you work with CAT tools, make sure you can access any TMs/termbases/projects you’re working on from both your desktop and mobile computer. Or transfer them before you go so you can keep working even when you’re away from your desk.

I also took a Hydroflask of tea with me and some fruit/energy bars. Hospital vending machines aren’t the best and there’s only so much stewed hospital tea I can take! While the nursing staff were wonderful when Mum was moved over to palliative care and offered me tea, sandwiches and even the food Mum would have had, had she been up to eating, even I felt all tea-ed out after one particularly long day – that’s not something you’ll hear me say very often!

And finally, remember that this too will pass. It’s desperately hard to keep your head above water when you’re in the thick of it, but nothing lasts forever. Use friends and family as sounding boards/support cushions, accept all the help you can, and make the most of the people you’re caring for while they’re still around. If nothing else, these caring opportunities make you reassess your priorities and realise what’s really important in life.

Next time (last post on this subject, I promise!), I’ll be looking at how I managed to navigate the complex social care system in England and what I learned along the way.

Mum and Dad kiss