Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Caregiver? STRESS ALERT: Take care of your own health.

"One sixty nine over eighty," the nurse at the CVS Minute Clinic said as she unwrapped and removed the inflatable cuff from my arm. "That's high. Do you always have high blood pressure?"

Always? I never had high blood pressure. I'm the one who everybody points to as living a healthy lifestyle and getting plenty of exercise.I'm the one who does yoga. Back home, I put the numbers into the search bar on the internet. 169 over 80. Hypertension. I don't know what those numbers really measure, but I know it's not good.

My annual medical exam was scheduled for the following week. I would get my blood pressure remeasured by my primary care physician, and we would discuss this.

One week later, it was slightly lower but basically the same thing. It was as high as that of some long-time heavy smokers I know. 

THIS is stress. Stress caused by a full year of managing, or dealing with, my elderly mother's issues. Trying to save her from financial devastation and medical destruction. All the while I was trying to write, publish, and promote my book, and other creative and professional endeavors (not to mention time and energy for my husband). I knew that I wasn't getting much exercise, I wasn't sleeping well at night, I knew that my routine was so centered around her, but I never gave a moment's thought to that this might be affecting my own health in some major way. I knew I didn't have as much time for my work and writing and my book as I would have liked, and that created internal - I would call them philosophical but they play out in the real world and in real lives - debates about taking care of others vs taking care of self. I knew I was stressed but you should see the looks on people's faces when I tell them I have hypertension.


At my annual medical exam, my doctor asked the usual questions: "Are you getting exercise?" My response was limp. Sometimes riding my bike, but no long distances any more. Sometimes but rarely getting to yoga. Sometimes but rarely running. Playing tennis with my husband, but only on Sundays in the spring and summer.  And my doctor told me to get more exercise and come back in three months and get retested.

This in combination with also being told I was borderline diabetic created some serious talks and evaluations regarding how I manage my own health, diet, life, and also my mother's.

This is what I learned:
  • Walgreens is amazing for anybody with high or low blood pressure. They will take your blood pressure for free. When you go, write down the result, and date it. I keep mine on my "notes" on my iPhone. I went monthly. With Walgreen's, there is no excuse for not getting your BP checked. No Walgreens? There is surely some pharmacy nearby. Senior centers often have regular and free BP screening.

  • The gym was amazing, especially given this awful winter. Even without the winter, it gave me a routine that I could stick with. I usually went late afternoon or early evening. I made sure I listened to music on my iPod that was relaxing, but kept me moving. For me this meant Neil Young, especially "Harvest Moon." I had a full workout, including 20 minutes running on the indoor track. Once a month I would use the steps machine, which would measure my average and high heart rate. THIS TOO I would write down and keep a record of. Because I don't have enough time to go to the gym and do yoga, I incorporate my yoga breathing and 'asanas' and relaxation techniques into my gym workout.

  • Vulnerability. We know we are stressed but it's more difficult to acknowledge how that stress is affecting us physically, and the degree to which it is affecting us physically. While some physical conditions are beyond our control, high blood pressure is often well within our control.  As we age, we become more and more vulnerable to stresses on our system. We are faced with conflict - ourselves vs those we love. And some of us are in the "sandwich generation." There are things I couldn't not do: Help my mother with her divorce, help her move from her home to her apartment, help her move from her apartment to the senior community, and so on. But many things, such as maintaining her car and making sure those bills were paid monthly, were unnecessary and only added stress to my life and my body. oing off for the day or weekend or week with my husband became an big deal, because nobody else in my family was willing to share responsibility for our mother with me. Dealing with the continued blood-letting of my mother's finances in her codependent relationship was another that I ultimately had to take by the horns, be strong, and weather the harsh disapproval that I knew I'd be up against.

  • Don't miss your annual medical exam. Schedule it. Put it in the system. Then make it to your appointment. If you're afraid of what the results will say, then face that and ask yourself honestly what you can do differently to make sure that your health is not irreparably damaged and that you haven't given yourself reason to avoid going to the doctor's. Have this discussion with your spouse or significant other, if one is in the picture. My doctor warned me, and I gave myself a goal of three months to get my emotional and physical house in order. Me, the healthy one.

  • Do what you need to do to lighten your burden around your elderly parent. That will pit you against your parent but for your life you need to. For me, it meant selling her car, and other difficult actions I write about. We fought. Often the fights were about her desire to have her car, versus my need to reduce my stress level, which was, literally, killing me. The fights were horrible because they pit me and my needs, physical and emotional, against my mother, who couldn't "hear" me, and what she wanted to do. The fights brought up other feelings and long-term issues. But being dead is no picnic, either.

The next time I got my BP taken, just one month ago, it was 142/74. Lower but still hypertension. 

Today was my last visit before my three-month visit to my doctor for a retest. 

This morning I went before I had my morning cup of coffee. The pharmacist came out and took the reading. My BP was 120/79. I phoned my husband and reported the good news, as if I were 14 and had gotten straight A's on my report card. Then I came home, had my coffee, and made an appointment for my 3-month checkup.

And wrote this blog post.

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