FRANK Shaughnessy meditates every morning. Some evenings he writes a list of the things that have gone well for him. It's what keeps him going, he says.
A psychologist by profession, the 53-year-old Dubliner is also a family carer.
Five years ago he moved back to the family home in Rialto to care for his mother Pauline, then in her late seventies. Pauline, who is now 84, who has been a diabetic and suffered a number of health problems all her life, was brought to hospital several weeks ago.
Frank is currently awaiting a decision on whether she will be released or not.
One of the hardest things about being a carer, he says, is the complete lack of training and support:
"I was juggling my job with caring for my mother, but caring for her became increasingly time-consuming over the last few years."
Frank did the cooking, the shopping and cleaning.
"My mother had a bad shake in her hand so there was a lot of extra cleaning up in the bedroom and living room.
"I would give her insulin and check her blood sugar levels.
"The most stressful period I found was when I didn't get enough sleep. My mother might call me during the night. I could be up for a few hours"and then I'd have to go to work.
"Once exhaustion kicks in, even the smallest thing becomes stressful. You can get very angry towards the person you're caring for, and resentful," he recalls.
Little things could sometimes be extraordinarily difficult, says Frank, one of more than 187,000 family carers in Ireland:
"Mum would want to watch something good on telly and if I couldn't find anything she liked, she'd get fed up.
"There was a lot of stress, because you just can't help with things like that."
Working as a carer can be physically demanding, but, as Frank discovered, there are other, subtler stresses:
"You have expectations of the way your life is going to go – suddenly that's all taken away from you.
"From a psychological point of view your expectations of life and the way it should go are shattered. That's what gets you down.
"You'll say to yourself 'this wasn't in the plan' – it's about learning to let it be part of the plan. Learn to love the life you have rather than grieve for the life you're not getting.
"I found the reality as a carer was that I was constantly stressed from the work. I was holding down two jobs – my own work and also caring for my mother.
"That was stressful. I didn't have the time to spend socialising or relaxing that I would have had otherwise."
At one stage, things got a bit too much: "I got a bit depressed once for a few weeks because of the lack of sleep and the stress."
Frank developed a number of strategies to help cope with the pressures he was under – he found meditation great, for example:
"While I was caring for my mother I meditated daily for about 20 minutes in the morning.
"I find meditation very good. It forces you to stop planning and plotting and brings you in the present minute."
Frank is also a firm believer in gratitude exercises, which he still does twice a week: "It's not about ignoring the bad stuff but about being aware of the good stuff. These strategies help to slow your mind so you're not constantly thinking about what you have to do next week or the week after – you start to live more day to day."
Getting some time to yourself is crucial for carers, he says – try to have your mealtimes to yourself, and, if someone comes in to visit your loved one, get a break by leaving the house.
Never cut back on sleep, he warns: "Sleeplessness plays havoc with your mind and your mood, and when you're deprived of sleep your ability to see the good side of things is reduced."
Good self-care is absolutely crucial for carers, says Brigid Barron, Innovation and Programme manager with Caring for Carers Ireland, which was set up in 1988 to promote the health and well-being of carers and those for whom they care.
Barron knows carers who barely have time to get to Mass, let alone go shopping or enjoy a weekend away. One carer, she says, has not visited her local town for nearly 12 years; another didn't leave her home in three decades because of onerous caring responsibilities: "Carers are always rushing and always on the clock to get back to the house to give medication, provide meals, be there for toileting, etc."
Many carers break down emotionally, she says: "Very often people are afraid to admit to themselves the reality of their lives."
One of the most shocking cases Barron came across was a woman who was struggling to care for her husband whilst parenting her teenage children.
"We eventually managed to get her on a respite weekend. During the weekend she became physically ill, was hospitalised for several weeks. She'd completely overstretched herself, It was beyond her physical capacity. She took no time for herself and, when she did relax, her whole system broke down.
"Carers tend to put themselves last and it's common for them to ignore their own health problems or symptoms. They may not have a good diet or take exercise because of the lack of time and freedom.
"They may have poor sleep patterns because of being regularly woken, and they may lose contact with family and friends because they don't have the time or the freedom to socialise."
Many, says Barron, also experience physical problems such as backache – but there's more:
"They may be assailed by a sense of hopelessness, depression, loss of energy and feelings of being overburdened.
"They may experience resentment as a result of not getting as much help from family members as they expected."
Some carers come to feel that they're losing their privacy, independence and time for themselves.
In a bid to counteract these problems, the group funds a carer's support service and provides training in self-care to carers.
"We provide a listening service and refer them to a counsellor if deemed necessary.
"We help them recognise when they need more help because a lot of people tend to struggle on to the end – most people will only attend our clinic in a time of crisis when they cannot emotionally or physically continue."
Spontaneity is a distant memory for Martina Davoren. The 40-year-old from Lahinch, Co Clare, is mother of a toddler but is also caring for her eldest daughter Theresa (22) who has Rett Syndrome.
This is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder resulting in physical and intellectual disability that almost exclusively affects girls.
"Theresa's like a newborn baby – you have to feed her, change her; she needs everything done for her so, it's 24/7 care. It's very hard going – you cannot just decide to do something – you have to plan everything the day before."
"There are times you will get stressed and fed up but you have to keep going. I try to take time out when I can," says Martina, who, when she gets the time, enjoys swimming, walking, set-dancing and bingo.
She's done first aid training with Caring for Carers Ireland, and has taken courses on manual handling and self-care.
"Looking after myself is very important – if I get sick there's no one to look after the girl in the wheelchair or the two-year-old. You worry about the future; you're thinking about it all the time."
Caring for Carers Ireland is based in Ennis, Co Clare, with regional centres in Galway, Dublin, Limerick, Cavan, Monaghan and Ennis.
Tel: 065 6866515