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Caring for my elderly parents taught me a hard lesson about burnout

Author and mom Jennifer Folsom says caregiving burnout is real, and it's important to remember who you are when you’re not taking care of everyone else.
Author Jennifer Folsom and her 75-year-old mom. Folsom has been taking of her mother, who last November, suffered a stroke.
Author Jennifer Folsom and her 75-year-old mom. Folsom has been taking of her mother, who last November, suffered a stroke.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

Since I began heavy caretaking for my parents last November, everyone around me warned about caregiver burnout. And this month I ran straight into my caregiving wall.

In my daily life, I have a full-time job that I love as a growth leader in a government management consulting firm. My second shift is mom of the “Folsom Frat House.” Along with my husband, we are attempting to keep our 15-year-old son on track while also “re-launching” our 20 year-old-twin sons who are living at home and have decided that college isn’t the right path for them.

And while life has always been a juggle, things were sort of on track until last November, when my 75-year-old mom suffered a stroke. My parents lived independently, about two-and-a-half hours away. Prior to the stroke, my mom cared for my father, who is mostly bed-bound with a variety of diagnoses. This stroke, and a second one two months later, thrust me into the main caregiver role with such speed and shock I’m surprised I didn’t have whiplash.

After a couple of months of getting their finances in order, minor renovations to create first floor living at their home and assembling an incredible local care team, I finally have been able to catch my breath. My brother and I alternate care every other weekend and they have 24/7 care at home during the week.

But the continuing management of their day-to-day lives, from paying bills and scheduling appointments and caregivers, to making hard decisions on courses of action and medication, started to chip away at me. I developed persistent neck and jaw pain from grinding my teeth. My stomach became upset at every hiccup in our caregiving plan. Despite all the support in the world, which I’m so grateful for, the you-know-what hit the fan last week when we found out our financial plan to pay for my parents' in-home care was in limbo.

I was in a bad place mentally, and I knew I had to put myself on a timeout. I was inspired by a friend from college who became a later-in-life first-time mom during the beginning of the pandemic. Her mental healthcare plan is to take short solo trips. And so just like that, I ran away to the beach.

With the support my incredible manager who approved four days off with no notice, my husband who agreed to hold down the fort, and a caregiver whose availability opened up and could take my weekend shift for my parents, I booked a tiny one-bedroom cottage at my favorite beach town, Chincoteague Island in Virginia. At 47 years old, it was my first non-business travel solo trip, a trip just for me and about me. I packed a stack of books, my bike, and my beach sun shade and hit the road.

It has been glorious.

Folsom during a trip to Chincoteague Island in Virginia.
Folsom during a trip to Chincoteague Island in Virginia.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

My family has been coming to this little island since 2008, and while I have loved every minute of those memories being made, they weren’t what you call “relaxing.” There were always meals to plan, laundry to wash, fights to referee, boo boos to kiss, water bottles to fill. It’s true what they say, mom’s work (my favorite and most important job) is never done.

There is simplicity in being able to just hop on my bike, ride out to the beach, reading, and eating whatever and whenever I wanted. At one point, I found myself on my favorite bike path, adjacent to a taco stand. I put in my shrimp ceviche and pork taco order, cooled off with a Paloma, and read my book at the standing bar.

“You look like you’re by yourself, do you want to join me?” one woman, a brunette with beautiful tattoos along her forearms asked me. She simultaneously oozed cool and openness, and a seat in the shade, so I joined her. Sharing that this was my first solo trip, she said, “Stop. I’m on a momcation, too!”

How had I not heard this term before?

We chatted over tortilla chips and our shared desire to “just escape.” Nothing fancy, not for long, but just a break to remember who we are, what we like to do when we don’t need to accommodate everyone else’s needs and desires, and reset.

The Covid-19 pandemic has done a number on all women, particularly mothers and caregivers. So much togetherness. So much fear and anxiety and taking care of the sick, all the while juggling home schooling and, more often than not, full-time work.

I’ve learned caregiver burnout is real. And when you don’t address it, you – and your family – will feel it.

I’m heading back home soon. But my blood pressure is down, I’m sleeping an average of nine hours a night, and the jaw-clenching pain is gone. And Kimmie, my new momcation pal, and I are here to encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t need to be far, it could be a hotel in your hometown for a night. Maybe it’s just an evening all to yourself. But take a break. Get away. Remember who you are when you’re not taking care of everyone else.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of growth at ICF Next. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and has three sons. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.