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Welcome and this week we are talking about planning, but not planning in terms of your role as a carer but actually planning for you, to support you to achieve your goals, hopes and dreams.

As carers we plan for all the essential activities that are required to make our lives work and to keep our loved ones safe and well. That often involves juggling additional demands that come from families and friends and colleagues or managers at work. What is left of our time, seems to be squeezed into ever smaller amounts and can even seem to disappear completely and we have not time for ourselves.  

As carers, one of the main reasons we do not priorities ourselves in the caring relationship and find there is no time left for us to do what we want to do, is because of a sense of guilt when we focus on ourselves, rather than our loved ones.  Guilt is one, if not the most, mentioned emotions in academic studies about caregiving. Most days we will experience bouts of guilt, for multitudes of reasons, often leaving us too exhausted to even think about our own priorities and making time to do something just for ourselves. From studies into the emotional experiences of carers, some of the reasons we feel guilty are:

We should be concentrating all of our time on our loved one;

We feel guilty about not being good enough to be a carer;

We feel guilty about neglecting our own self-care;

We feel guilty about neglecting partners, friends and relatives;

However, carrying out activities that have a positive impact on our mental and emotional wellbeing are just as important as caring for our loved ones. Yes, as important. But even thinking about putting ourselves first can invoke an immediate feeling of being selfish and then, of course, feeling guilty and I am no different. However, after spending hours reading and researching about how emotions can impact on carers, I have been able to learn how to ‘dial back’ the volume on those instinctive responses and I can rationalise and balance my needs with those of my loved one, well most of the time! It might feel like you are putting yourself completely before your cared-for-person but making time for yourself doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing’ choice. Making time for what is important to you and working towards achieving a dream; perhaps learning a new skill or hobby, or even refreshing an old one, is completely doable. However, you will need to plan and think differently about how you will achieve that plan and be prepared to acknowledge and deal the emotions that go with doing something just for you.

Setting personal goals, regardless of their size, can help you focus on what is important to you. This allows you to be present in your own life as an individual; to reflect on where you are now, and to think about what you want from your future. A dream or goal does not have to be something you have just on your own though. It could be a shared goal, or dream with your loved one, something that you can do together, such as learning a new hobby, or perhaps revisiting an old activity that you used to do together.

Also goals don’t just have to be about achieving a personal dream. Being a carer and working or running your own business means that you may need to build upon skills that you have now, to be able to grow in that organisation and plan for the future. So, looking at those skills now, planning, taking action and thinking about how you can start making progress on them, will help you towards your longer term goals and negotiate transitions if your caring role changes.

But first let’s talk about time! Even with the significant demands on you as a carer, it is still possible to set small, achievable goals and work towards your dreams. However, you will need to identify what is important to you and what are you willing to change, stop doing or postpone to achieve that goal. If you currently unable to make those changes, then you will need to think about why that it and what is holding you back. Thinking differently about what is important to you and taking small steps forward to achieve that, can help to trigger and develop new behaviours, which can be sustained for longer periods of time. Just because you haven’t had the time to think about planning or doing something for yourself, doesn’t mean that you can’t start now. Reflecting on what you really want to do and how that will make you feel, can help you to focus on what is required, even if means making temporary sacrifices in another area of your life. The best time to start taking action is always now, no matter how small that action might be.

So, let’s start planning. Goal setting doesn’t have to be boring, but it does help to think about it in three different types of goals. A long-term goal is usually aspirational, something that is much further down the line and might take years to achieve, perhaps running a marathon, when you don’t run at all. With a medium-term goal, it would usually take about a year, perhaps less, so, going back to the example earlier, if you don’t run at the moment and your long-term aspiration is to run a marathon, your medium-term goal could be to run a half marathon. Shorter term goals or actions are usually things that you can complete in a couple of weeks or months. If they take longer than that, then you are probably going to need to break them down into smaller chunks, identify actions that you can achieve within one two or three weeks. Otherwise, they can feel overwhelming and, in your mind, you will feel that you are never going to achieve them and give up. So, going back to the example I gave earlier, a short-term goal could be completing the Couch to 5K challenge, it is solid, practical step towards the next medium-term goal of completing a half marathon and your ultimate goal of running a marathon.  

I thought it might be useful to share a personal example of putting goal setting into practice as a carer. When I started caring full-time for my loved one, about two years ago, I threw myself completely into the role. I didn’t even think about my own welfare, my wellbeing or mental health. Suddenly, I couldn’t do the external things that I would normally do, such as working, volunteering which is really important to me or seeing friends, I was 100% focused on being the best care I could be. Over time, without noticing, the resentment, guilt, anger, shame, frustration growing, started to build up. It probably took the best part of a year, before realised how low I was; physically, emotionally and psychologically and I definitely wasn’t being the carer I had wanted to be, nor was I the carer my loved one deserved. So, I deliberately made a small amount of time each day, for about week, to reflect on where I was emotionally and psychologically, and I knew straight away that I had to do somethings differently. I recognised and acknowledged that the total absence of any activity that had given me pleasure in my life before I became a full-time carer, was a fundamental part of how I was feeling now. I thought about what I used to really love doing and realised I still had a huge passion for France and all things French. I wanted to try and learn French again, I won’t even tell you how many times I’ve tried before, but I never give up!

My aspirational goal is to return to live in France, although in terms of timescale, I have no idea when I might be able to achieve that dream. When I lived there before, I struggled with communicating but next time I want to be able to speak and understand French much more fluently. To ensure that I had a tangible goal to work towards, I chose reaching Level B2 French as my long-term goal, as this is the standard when you should be able to engage in conversations and understand most of what’s going on. Next was setting the medium-term goal. I researched the different levels of assessing my learning and my proficiency and chose Level A1 as being point at which I would have attained a solid grammatical grounding of the language. That will probably would take me a year with the amount of time that I can commit every day and it is an achievable, middle sized goal. After prioritising my daily activities as a carer, my short-term goal or action, is to practice French at least 30 minutes a day. At weekends I can do more, if I want to, but actually 30 minutes a day is doable. As soon as I put my plan into action and started my French sessions each day, I really noticed a difference in how I felt about myself. I feel more able to balance my emotions when I feel stressed, as I know I have something to look forward to that is just for me. Some days it doesn’t feel like I am making any progress, but I know I am, a little bit at a time. One of the keys in achieving my goal, is that I am flexible with when and how I can complete the practice. I know there will be some days when I can’t do it at all but there will be other days, I can do a little bit more and catch up. It took a while, but slowly I started to feel that I am finally becoming the caregiver I really want to be. It is still going to be a long journey, mais je progresse tous les jours!

So, let’s get started. Set your long and medium-term goals, writing them down and putting them where you can see them every day. Then write down as many small actions as you can think of that will directly take you a step towards your medium-term goal. Finish the exercise by reflecting on each of the actions in your list and chose one, as your first short-term goal or action step. Next think about the time that you have available now and plan how you will identify and prioritise the time you will need to implement your first action step. Then complete that action, return to your list and chose the next one. At this point, it helps to reflect on why you want to do achieve this action or goal? Think about how amazing it is going to feel when you achieve your dream. Perhaps it is to play the guitar. Learn how to sew. Enter your first tennis tournament, on the way to Wimbledon. Imagine yourself having achieved that goal right now. How does that feel?

Next think about “What’s stopping you right now?” Try to identify the blocks and understand them.

Is it time?

Is it the environment?

Do you have a place to study?

Do you have a place to play the guitar? or practice your tennis?

Is it actually you that is stopping you?

Do you think that you can’t do it?

Look at each block individually, like each one is a brick in a wall, rather than focusing on the whole wall. Review each challenge and consider how you might need to think differently to be able to remove the brick from the wall. Identify the activities you will need to take to overcome the block and start taking action straight away. As part of overcoming a block, you may need to stop doing something, perhaps for a short period to release that time to complete an action, or to give yourself some breathing space to effectively think about what you need to achieve. However, also remember the emotional element of this isn’t going to go away. The guilt and sense of selfishness are going to be lurking around somewhere, but they should not be a reason not take action to achieve your dream.

Take action every day, even if it’s really tiny actions, one step at a time, one foot in front of another. It could be making a call to someone; reading an article or doing some research, just try and do something every day and make action taking a habit by building it into your daily routine. Think about useful tools, such as the one mindful breath exercise we did last week. Also, don’t be harsh on yourself, if you aren’t able to achieve an action one day, it’s OK, it is going to happen, just set the action for the next day and get it ticked off your list.  If I’m not able to do my 30 minutes one particular day, I don’t beat myself up. I look at what got in the way, accept it, learn from it, set it aside, and get going again, the plan is still there. It’s like if you’re on a diet, and you end up accidentally eating a piece of cake (or is that just me!), your whole diet isn’t ruined, you don’t need to eat the whole cake just because you ate one small slice.  It just means you have eaten a piece of cake, that’s it! That action does not predict that you will do the same again tomorrow or the day after that. You are a different person the next day, because you would have reflected and learned from that experience and will do things differently next time temptation comes along. So, you go back to your diet, back to your plan, and start moving forward as you were before.

There are some big benefits from focusing on something for you as an individual, rather than an activity that you need to do as a carer, employee, parent or friend. A study in 2016 showed that just two hours a week of doing a hobby improved the mental wellbeing of the participants. But it isn’t necessarily the hobby or the activity itself. It’s the distraction that helps to improve our mind and mood. For example, the benefit of playing golf and focusing on improving your swing, is not that you are concentrating on the ball or club. It is the cognitive processes that go into focusing, which mean you are less likely to be thinking about other aspects of your life, which for a carers, may cause you to feel sad, or down or frustrated or anger etc.

It is useful to ask yourself some questions as part of your planning process, such as:

Is this something I’m passionate about or really interested in, that I’d love to learn or refresh?

Do I want it enough to deal with how it might make me feel?

Or to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it?

Am I prepared to think differently about my current routine, and to make space for something just for me?

Here is a challenge that I put together to get you started, it’s called ‘One Activity, One Minute, One Day.’ Firstly, think about that thing that you would like to learn, achieve or do. Then research what you might need to do to be able to achieve it, such as signing up for a course or finding a coach or mentor to support you. Put together a plan and write it down. Start to think about where you are going to find the time from, such as do you need to reschedule activities or temporarily stop doing something else? Start with one minute a day, identify the actions you will need to start working towards achieving your goal. Then after few days or a week, find five minutes and start using this time to start implementing those actions. Then 10 minutes and keep increasing the time amount of time a day until you reach a workable, realistic amount of time you can commit to, without increasing your levels of guilt or feeling selfish. By introducing actions, almost surreptitiously, you are building up your time capacity comfortably, until suddenly it is built into your normal routine and you are less likely to experience feelings of guilty in spending time on something that is important for you. Accept that there are going to be some emotional reactions, but don’t attach any importance to them, let them sit there and then let them go. The most important thing is that you are putting your plan into action and you are starting to achieve your goal or your plan, and then celebrate that success. Celebrating your success is another part of reaffirming that you are important, and your achievements are special. For me, I will celebrate when I am able hold a five-minute conversation with someone in French and enjoy it.

Again it is important to remember that planning doesn’t have to be boring. You are not planning for things that you have to do in your role as a carer, although you can use the same processes. This is planning something just for you. You are a really important person. You are the most important person in your loved one’s life and by being focused on activities for you, even for only small periods of time, will have a knock-on effect, not just for you, but also for loved one as well.

All the exercises I have mentioned will be in the ‘resources’ section below and if you would like any more information or have a topic you think would help support other carers, please email at enquiries@carershearts.org

Next weeks post is titled “You don’t have to be alone to feel lonely”. We will be talking about how you don’t actually have to be on your own to feel lonely. As a carer, it can feel very lonely, even if you are surrounded by your loved one, family members or friends. We will then explore different exercises and activities that you can do to start addressing any sense of loneliness you may have.

Well thank you again so much for reading this blog post, I hope you found it interesting and useful and remember what a special thing it is that you do.

Resources and References:

The benefits of goal setting

 Setting goals for mental health recovery 

Tracking goals and progress – Digital (non-affiliate):

•       Trello  

•       Evernote 

•       Asana    

Finding a hobby can improve your mental health 

Judith G. Gonyea, Ruth Paris & Lisa de Saxe Zerden (2008) Adult daughters and aging mothers: The role of guilt in the experience of caregiver burden, Aging & Mental Health, 12:5, 559-567, DOI: 10.1080/13607860802343027