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Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Julie Entwistle, MBA, BHSc (OT), BSc (Health / Gerontology)

In celebration of National Caregivers Month we wanted to re-share one of our popular caregiving posts:

If you have ever traveled by air you are familiar with the drill. Instructions on how to buckle and unbuckle your seatbelt, where the life vest is located, emergency exits, and “should cabin pressure change, an oxygen mask will fall from the overhead compartment…passengers should always put on his or her own mask before assisting children, or a disabled passenger”.

I read a mommy blog the other day that called this the “airplane example” and the writer related this to how moms should approach motherhood. Ultimately the message is this: as a mom, put your own health first because you are useless to your kids and spouse if you ignore your own needs. Really, you can’t help a child with an emergency escape from a crashing plane if you pass out helping them with their mask.

While I do agree that mothers (and fathers for that matter) need to consider their own needs in providing for the family, this is also true of people that provide care to a disabled person. My experience is that often caregivers do not really “elect” that role. They are not trained to be a caregiver, and really just try to do their best with the skills and resources they possess. However, where many fall short is maintaining their own health and well-being in dedicating their physical and emotional time to another person: a person with challenging and multiple needs. The job of a caregiver is often 24 hours, and resources don’t often permit, nor does the government provide, sufficient relief from this responsibility. Caregivers are often sleep deprived, suffer from muscle and joint pain in fulfilling their role, and can become isolated and depressed due to the changes they have made to take on these new responsibilities. Sound familiar? This very closely mimics motherhood (especially for new moms).

The answer? Put on your own oxygen mask first. What can you do to breathe easier? What helps you to feel clear-headed, energetic and optimistic? What gives you that ability to stay positive, appreciate and take on your responsibilities with some enthusiasm? The answers are often different for all of us. In the end, figuring out how to wear your oxygen mask first requires you to be honest about your abilities and skills, to utilize the resources available, and to ultimately ask for help if this is needed.

And for us health care professionals? We need to be very careful of the responsibilities we place on caregivers. This is especially true in the medical community where we repeatedly discharge people into the care of family, without family really knowing what the responsibilities will entail. As health care providers our responsibility is always to the client, yet we need to take that extra time to check in with the caregiver, talk about how they are coping and managing and if needed, offer them an oxygen mask.

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  1. Deanna Waggy says:

    I love your website and blog. Thanks for re-sharing this important post! Teaching self care practices to clients and caregivers is very important, but our time may be limited for various reasons. The fact that you notice the impact of stress and give the caregiver permission to put on the oxygen mask first can be very empowering. OT’s have an important role in the area of self care and wellness for caregivers. It is helpful to know what resources are available online and in your community, for those brief moments when you can check in with the caregiver. Simple handouts with information on caregiver support groups and basic self care tips can be a life saver. I created a set of self care resources (Balance Resource Cards) including a companion blog and website to provide some specific “oxygen mask” ideas, so that I could address self care issues in another format when I don’t have time to sit down 1:1 and teach these techniques.

    1. Erin Ridpath says:

      Thank you Deanna!