I recently had an extended chat with Adam Holcroft for his Powerful Ageing Podcast series. It was a pretty wide-ranging conversation and Adam had really done his homework about me and the work that I do. I was shocked, however, when he asked about self-care. It’s not a topic that comes up very often in the academic world, and certainly never in the media, but it’s a reflection of the level of insight and sensitivity that Adam brings to his work.
When you spend your days thinking about death and disease, and listening to stories of real trauma and anguish, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by despair. It’s also easy to work long hours, nights, and weekends when you’re passionate about what you do and you work in a system that is constantly demanding more.
But what I’ve come to realise over the years is that, although empathy is vital, if I allow myself to be overwhelmed by the emotions I can’t do justice to the stories and experiences with which research participants have entrusted me. And that my productivity and passion are actually enhanced by working shorter hours and keeping nights and weekends for myself. To put it bluntly, I’ve realised that self-care is not selfish.
So, inspired by Adam, I wanted to share the things I do to make sure I can keep doing research that cares….
Exercise is my bliss. It’s always the first thing I turn to when things get tough. Swimming, walking, or even a session on the cross-trainer – anything that gets my body moving helps my mind switch off. And the clear head and still body that comes afterwards is always conducive to making major breakthroughs in my work. Unfortunately over the last year my capacity for exercise has been reduced as I’ve struggled with an autoimmune condition. But that just means that when I can exercise, I appreciate the benefits even more.
Spending time with friends and family always helps me put my problems in perspective (and the accompanying glass of wine doesn’t hurt either!). Friends or family with small children are particularly good. Small children require your complete focus – it’s impossible to think about a grant application when I’m reading The Gruffalo to my nephews (aka the two most beautiful boys on the planet) – and watching them discover new things is always such a joy.
It’s also important, for me at least, to balance the social time with quiet time. Taking myself to a movie or lounging on the couch with a good book are my preferred ‘me time’ activities.
I love to bake and nothing gets me out of my head more than pulling out the mixing bowls, pre-heating the oven, and weighing ingredients to the sweet sounds of Jill Barber. I also give away most of what I bake and I get so much joy from seeing my friends’ faces light up as they bite into a decadent brownie or a light-as-air almond cake.
A few years ago I did my first ever 10-day vipassana course. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it nearly broke me. But the lessons I learnt were invaluable and I use the techniques on a daily basis. While vipassana isn’t for everyone, there are plenty of other forms of meditation and a growing body of scientific evidence on the benefits of meditating (this fascinating article is just one example)
I know some people can’t imagine anything worse than being touched by a total stranger, but I couldn’t live without regular massages. The combination of sitting at a desk all day and years of swimming has wreaked havoc on my neck and shoulders, so a good massage always helps me feel looser and stand taller. There is also something incredibly nourishing about being touched in a way that is so caring and compassionate. (If you’re interested in dementia and massage, check out our research)
Think of Babe
When I was growing up my mother’s catchphrase was “Near enough’s not good enough” – a mantra that’s not even remotely compatible with the ethos of self-care (& fostered a nasty case of perfectionism in yours truly). While I still strive to do everything to the best of my ability, I’m learning to let go of the need for things to be perfect. To help me along I keep a sign above my desk that says “Near enough’s fucking awesome” and when I’m tempted to proof-read that paper just one more time before I submit it, I think of the farmer in Babe and say to myself, “That’ll do, pig, that’ll do”.
Finally, whenever I’m tempted to throw in the towel and I’m entertaining fantasies of an alternative career as a swimming instructor or an organic goat farmer, I take a moment to think about why I do what I do. I’m completely committed to the wellbeing of people with dementia and their carers and I consider it a privilege to spend my days listening to their stories and sharing them with the world. So even on the days when there’s limited time for self-care, I know it’s worth it.
So that’s what I do. What do you do to take care of yourself?