The Caregiver’s Balancing Act

By Kristine Dwyer, LSW

In the 1960s, TV celebrity Ed Sullivan featured a Chinese talent artist who demonstrated the careful balance and timing of spinning porcelain plates atop thin, wooden sticks. The key was to start spinning a stack of plates one at a time and then dash from plate to plate keeping each one in motion to prevent them from crashing to the floor. Viewers watched in amazement as plates slowed their pace and began to wobble precariously, yet miraculously the man was able to reach each plate at the last second just before it tipped. The artist then ended the performance by quickly gathering up each teetering plate into a neat pile without a single disaster.

Caregiving today can often be compared to this entertaining yet realistic experience. Balancing the multiple roles and responsibilities of our lives is a constant challenge. Each plate may represent a different part of our lives as we work tirelessly to maintain motion and balance. They can symbolize personal needs, marriage, family, career, friendships, health issues, finances, social and physical activities. These are the “plates” of everyday life that one can expect to spin. Then when one becomes a caregiver, several more plates are added such as personal and medical care, transportation, supervision of safety needs, emotional support, companionship, financial oversight and decision-making for the well being of a loved one. Add in the weight of a few unexpected events such as sudden illness, job loss, or a divorce and it can be very difficult to keep all of the plates spinning in unison without a calamity.

Although we want to avoid losing our momentum, a sudden crash of a plate or an unexpected personal emergency can be a time of awakening. It can also be a call to reprioritize as we evaluate the results of a fallen plate. One may ask, “Should I keep spinning these plates alone or ask for help?” “Should I remove a plate before it falls, or perhaps set one or two aside to focus on fewer plates for awhile?” Keeping an eye on our spinning plates is important to assess our capabilities and the challenges we are facing. If we live in a continuous scramble between the plates, we may lose our focus on what is truly important and jeopardize our own health and safety, not to mention the well being of those we care about.
Caregiving for a loved one may last for months or many years. In addition, the number of plates may change or be replaced as life unfolds and we strive for a healthy balance. Whether you decide to keep all of the plates spinning at once or set a few aside, caregiving support can be received in many ways: attend a support group or personal counseling sessions to gain a perspective of the caregiving situation, build a support network to include family, friends, medical personnel, clergy and a social worker/care manager, accept assistance with personal care needs from family members and friends to lighten the load, hire private help even a few hours a week for household and chore services, accept respite care opportunities to allow a break from caregiving and find ways to renew one’s own body, mind and spirit.

We may not all be as talented as the Chinese balance artist, but we can use our own inner resources and the help from others to attain steadiness in our lives. Providing care to someone in need may be one of the most important roles one will ever fill in a lifetime, yet it does not have to be done alone. The first step is to recognize that we are spinning too many plates or that the plates are teetering out of control. The second step is to ask for help. This is a sign of strength, not weakness, and is the surest way to keep all of the facets of our lives in careful balance.

Kristine Dwyer is a Caregiver Consultant and Licensed Social Worker with Carlton County Public Health and Human Services in Cloquet, Minnesota. She is also a past and current caregiver for family members.


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