I was part of a parent panel the other day, set up to speak to current physical and occupational therapy students at our local university.
The primary goal of the discussion was to share with students our experience supporting our kids through pediatric therapies, from in-hospital experience to early intervention (birth-to-three), to school-based therapies in the setting of Special Education services, to clinic-based private therapies and intensives.
We were talking from our experience about ways in which therapists have most effectively supported and engaged our kids and us as the primary caregivers and the people actually doing most of the therapy work in our homes between clinic or office visits with these licensed professionals. As in so many cases, parents wind up acting as the primary providers with the actual providers serving more as consultants in care.
I was joined by two other wonderful moms who are raising medically complex kids with differing diagnoses. Our kids are at different ages and stages, as are we, and our personal experiences are also very different.
However, as is often the case when caregivers get together, our experience of care and our advice to providers is far more similar than different.
We want to be acknowledged as the professional homecare providers we become through caregiving.
We want to be included as an equal party in care planning.
We want our child valued and their quality-of-life centered in care decisions. Etc. Etc.
An interesting point in this discussion, however, arose when a student made a comment about how it appeared that the three of us had managed to take really good care of ourselves and prioritize our own well-being despite carrying the elephant's share of caregiving responsibilities. She generally asked how we did it and what we did to prioritize ourselves.
After a small, shared chuckle (because we can all feel a bit like train-wrecks at some point), we talked about the importance of mental health (of course) and therapy. One mom discussed emotional well-being (super important). But also the importance of physical well-being and addressing the physical demand of caregiving.
That physical demand is the part that I have grappled with personally over these past few years.
Caregiving is manual labor.
(Though considering that most caregivers are, in fact, women, perhaps manual labor is a misnomer.)
Caregiving is often long-term, and as our kids age and grow, so do we.
Our bodies eventually feel the impact of age.
Our bodies eventually feel the chronic demand of caregiving,
The chronic overuse,
The chronic stress on our muscles and joints.
We feel it.
And so, we discussed the importance of fitness for caregivers,
of working out,
of strength-building and weight-training.
One mom recommended to these young, soon-to-be providers that they encourage young parent-caregivers to find a fitness strategy that works for them.
And it truly is important for caregivers, so they can maintain their level of caregiving competency over time, for as long as physically possible.
It was the first time I have been part of a caregiving panel where fitness and exercise were really highlighted as a necessity for caregiving. It went beyond the usual "fill your cup" and "take care of yourself" conversation.
And it is an area of personal growth in which I have been working to the point of hyper-focus, over this past year especially.
I have been reading and studying a lot around the connections between caregiving labor and physical health.
I am prioritizing strength-training for this reason, and I have been working toward a certification in personal training and wellness coaching for this same reason.
So I can expand my knowledge as a caregiver, and so I can speak with both personal experience, plus knowledge-gained in the field. So I can better help myself, and my son, and other caregivers I know, live our best possible lives, for as long as possible.