In grade school, we all learned the list of human needs: food, water, clothes, shelter, companionship, sleep… When someone needs help meeting their basic needs, a family caregiver, a spouse or a child, often steps in. As the number of family caregivers in the United States grows, we are learning some important things about caregiving. No matter how devoted, caregivers are not endless sources of compassion. They maintain their ability to care for others only by caring for themselves.
Caregiving is stressful.
The stresses put on caregivers can be enormous. In many cases, the role of caregiver is assigned by surprise as the result of an unexpected event, like a stroke. One’s role can switch from spouse or child to caregiver remarkably fast. Caregivers may mourn the loss of the companion with whom they had, as little as a few days ago, a more give-and-take style relationship.
In addition, caregivers often experience stress as a result of unrealistic expectations. Some caregivers see providing care as their exclusive responsibility, so they try to do everything perfectly. It’s just not possible. Also, they may be disheartened when the effort they expend doesn’t seem to make a difference. Remember, no amount of love and attention can stop the progression of some illnesses.
Finally, caregivers often experience stress related to a lack of control. They may lack the money, resources, and skills to manage their loved one’s care. This can relate to feelings of helplessness.
Identifying caregiver burnout.
If you are caring for a family member who is ill or disabled, these stresses and others may put you at risk for caregiver burnout. The definition of caregiver burnout is simple: it’s just plain exhaustion. Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Caregivers who are normally positive and gentle can become negative or check out entirely.
While periods of high stress and confusing feelings are common in the life of a caregiver, caregiver burnout is signaled by lasting changes, like withdrawal from family and friends, depression, or lack of interest; irritability or hopelessness; trouble sleeping; and changes in appetite or weight. In the most severe circumstances, caregivers can experience feelings of wanting to hurt themselves or the person for whom they are caring or can succumb to substance abuse, like drinking too much alcohol or relying on sleep medications.
Preventing caregiver burnout.
If you are a caregiver, you can avoid burnout by being realistic and making time for your own needs. Although it is not easy, try to set up a routine that is doable and leaves time for you to take care of yourself.
Most caregivers find it necessary to share caregiving tasks with others. Look to family and friends to run errands or help with home maintenance. Getting help with simple things, like picking up the mail or a prescription, can make an otherwise trying or busy schedule less stressful.
Next, look to professionals to give you some time to yourself. Your local agency on aging will have information about trustworthy volunteers, adult day care providers, private care aides, and home health companies. One or more of these services on a regular schedule can provide time for you to think of yourself and your own needs.
Many nursing homes provide respite care. This offers caregivers a break by caring for their family member for as little as a few days or for as long as a few weeks. Families use respite care on a regular basis, one weekend a month, for instance, or for special occasions, like traveling to a wedding. It allows caregivers time to relax and rejuvenate or participate fully in important events that their family member can no longer attend.
During some of the free time you’ve found by calling in help, meet up with someone you enjoy talking to and share your feelings. The humor and contemplation that comes with conversation with a good friend is restorative. You can also connect with a caregiver support group or with support groups related to your loved one’s diagnosis. No doubt you will find many similarities between your experiences and those of others’ in the group and find positive ways of coping with the stresses and feelings.
Especially if you feel depressed or you have feelings of hurting yourself or someone else, contact your primary care doctor for a referral to a mental health counselor. A session or two can be tremendously helpful in understanding your feelings and addressing them in a positive way.
These actions might seem like a luxury, but in fact, taking care of yourself is a necessity. The quality of your life and the life of your loved one depends on it. With some consideration for yourself and your needs, you will be better equipped to take on the challenges of caregiving and make your time with your loved one as rich and rewarding as possible.
Suzanne Anair is the administrator of the Centers for Living and Rehabilitation, a part of Southwestern Vermont Health Care. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.