Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: Caring for the carer

If you don't look after yourself, you are absolutely no use to anybody else, so says pharmacist and researcher, Dr Michelle O'Driscoll who offers advice to carers
Dr Michelle O'Driscoll: Caring for the carer

Pouring from an empty cup takes its toll, says Dr Michelle O'Driscoll. Picture: Stock

CARERS come in all shapes and sizes. Parents of children, children of ailing parents, spouses, relatives, neighbours, friends, healthcare workers, the list goes on.

And in the times we currently live, more people have become carers to facilitate the cocooning of those who are medically vulnerable.

Whether you’re caring 24 hours a day for a loved one, or you’re a neighbour that collects medication and does the grocery shopping, carers offer so much in terms of love and support. And although certainly not a role that is exclusive to females, women are naturally viewed as nurturers, as maternal, as carers. It’s a role that we so often fall into, almost by default.

Although most of us won’t be flying anywhere in the near future, airlines offer excellent life advice every time we step on board, in the guise of in-flight safety. Many of us have heard it so often that we don’t even register the words properly anymore. “…please attend to your own oxygen mask first”. This advice is targeted towards those travelling with children, usually parents; the most common type of ‘carers’ amongst us. In the case of loss of cabin pressure, parents are to look after their own oxygen supply, their own safety, first. Only then should they begin to help the little person travelling with them.

Almost counter-intuitive, isn’t it?

But of course this advice is based on the fact that, actually, if you don’t look after yourself, you are of absolutely no use to anybody else. Ever heard the expression “you cannot pour from an empty cup”?

Same thing. You cannot offer what you simply do not have. And when you try, it can be to the detriment of your own health, resulting in burnout, anxiety and fatigue. Pouring from an empty cup takes its toll, you see.

To invest in your own wellbeing as a carer isn’t easy, but it is essential.

“Self-care” is the act of looking after your own health and wellbeing, the decision to “see to your own oxygen mask first”.

If you’re one of these carers that I speak of, then take a moment to ask yourself where your own self-care journey is at. If it’s currently non-existent, or you’re struggling to find a place for it in your life, the following tips may help:

Back to basics….

Begin with the essentials. Self-care starts with making sure that you’re eating properly, exercising, getting enough sleep, and hydrating adequately — the usual advice for healthy living. Even if this is all you manage in terms of self-care, it’s an excellent start.

It’s easy to forget or neglect the basics in the midst of chaos, but getting back to them will give you the fuel and energy to actually be able to manage the tasks ahead.

Personalise it…

Apart from the essentials, self-care looks different for everybody. Identify things that your soul loves, that make your heart sing, activities that give you a feeling of contentment and ease. It could be a coffee with a friend, a yoga class, a long walk, a good book, playing an instrument, a hot bath? It’s not rocket science, but it’s important to know what releases your shoulders, reduces your heart rate and eases that tension in your chest.


Imagine your day is a glass jar. Into that jar you must put large stones and sand. The large stones represent your self-care. The sand represents all the other things that you need to get done in a day; work commitments, life administration, and the caring role that you play in other people’s lives. It is possible to fit both the stones and the sand into the jar, but only if you start by putting in the stones first. If you begin by pouring in the sand, it lodges at the bottom and takes up the room that the stones require. However, if you put in the stones first, and then pour the sand over them, the sand filters down between the stones and both will fit. And even then, when the jar seems full, you can pour liquid on top, and that too will seep down into the jar. Moral of the story? Prioritise self-care and the rest will fall into place. And even when the day seems full, there’s always room for a cup of tea with a friend!

You cannot offer what you simply do not have. And when you try, it can be to the detriment of your own health, resulting in burnout, anxiety and fatigue.

Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company. Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through her company InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally

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