Putting your own oxygen mask on first: Reflecting on caregiving

Take a look around you and you’ll find that we all know someone who is a caregiver. The number is just under 8 million people – that’s approximately one in four Canadians acting as caregivers.

This National Caregiver Day, we want to recognize Canadians like Shannon, who have taken on more to help care for a loved one living with MS. Shannon’s father was diagnosed with MS before she was born. As his disease progressed, she stepped in as a family caregiver to ensure he received the care he needed.

After his passing, Shannon became the facilitator of the National Virtual Caregivers Group to help support caregivers in the MS community.

Guest post by: Shannon Bird

While my father’s MS always shaped our lives and our relationship, it was never a primary topic of conversation. I became an MS Society volunteer as a small act of solidarity – to let him know that I recognized and cared for the way MS affected him. I take great pride in supporting the MS community in honour of my father’s lifelong dedication to improving the world around him, and my mother’s unwavering strength in her role as a caregiver. 

In September 2021, I became the facilitator of the National Virtual Caregivers Group, a space for caregivers to find camaraderie and sympathetic advice based on mutual experience. Caregiving is very broadly defined by this group, which aims to be beneficial for anyone who identifies as a caregiver – spouses, children, parents, friends, or loved ones – who find themselves walking the caregiving path alone, as most of us do at some point.

Caregiving can be isolating in a way that negatively affects ourselves and our loved ones. Thankfully, support groups offer a chance to recharge. This group has shared advice, laughs, and tears that have allowed people to make positive changes in their lives. It’s difficult to understand the experience of caregiving without living it, which is why the experience can be isolating. Rather than trying to relate and advise, loved ones of caregivers might find it best to simply listen – you would be surprised how rare this can be. 

As a caregiver, there can be a mix of guilt, frustration, grief, and fear that are inherent to the role. One of the best ways to alleviate these feelings is to simply talk about them. There is so much comfort in knowing that the experience is a shared one and that is why the National Virtual Caregivers Group has been so beneficial. People have referred to it as a safe space to bring everything that you’ve been struggling with and get advice, a new perspective, or a comforting “I’ve been there.”

I was excited to facilitate connections between caregivers because it is an immediate and tangible way to improve the quality of life for those living with MS and their caregivers. You can see the mental benefits of friendship with an accessible social setting. You can also receive the physical benefits of advice about things like new resources, accessibility tips, or healthcare management successes.

Caregiving often means looking after someone you love deeply, so self-care can be neglected. In the group, we often talk about the idea of putting your own oxygen mask on first. You have to be healthy yourself to be a good caregiver, and I believe that accessing support groups is a great example of prioritizing your own well-being.

An individual in the group once said, “It’s okay to cry, be angry, and be jealous, but it’s also okay to just be happy.” At the end of the day, navigating MS and caregiving is a complex experience. We owe it to ourselves to feel all the emotions, to get unstuck from the darker ones, and to not feel guilty for finding happiness wherever we can.

By celebrating National Caregiver Day, we remind caregivers that it is important to recognize themselves. Caregivers are a group of people who dedicate significant portions of their lives to others. Taking the time to check in on them, and asking them to check in on themselves, is something we must do more often as friends, family, and community members. 

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