Caring for Yourself as a Caregiver
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2021

Caring for Yourself as a Caregiver

In my work with older adults, I see many healthy patients who are thriving in older adulthood. I also see some patients who have experienced a debilitating medical event or who are declining into a situation where they need more help. In many cases, friends and family are working to care for their aging relative. What’s most important for caregivers to remember is that you are not an inexhaustible resource.  You maintain your ability to care for others only by caring for yourself. Here are my top recommendations for a healthy caregiving relationship.

Set realistic expectations. Periods of high stress and confusing feelings are common in the life of a caregiver. You may be mourning the loss of the relationship you had enjoyed with your loved one, or you may be disheartened when the effort you expend doesn’t seem to make a difference. Mix in a few bright spots or a moment of hope, and you can feel like you’re on a rollercoaster. It’s normal to have ups and downs. Knowing that can make riding the waves a little easier. And remember, trying to do everything perfectly or reverse the progress of some illnesses is just not possible. Go easy on yourself.

Set up a routine. Although it is not easy, try to set up a routine that is doable and leaves time for you to take care of yourself. Include time for yourself away from your loved one; all people in healthy relationships need to take time for themselves.  Absence really does make the heart grow fonder! Setting up “me time” helps prepare for more productive “together-time.” This will likely mean that you must find ways to share the responsibility.

Allow others to pitch in. This is a big issue for most caregivers who are often embarrassed to ask for help or get so caught up taking care of everything that they forget that accepting help can be easier than doing it all on their own. 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 a busy schedule less stressful. It is also a great way to get much needed social interactions with others. Plus, helping makes people feel good about themselves, so both parties benefit. It’s ok to ask for help, but especially when someone offers, say yes!  

Look to professionals for help. Your local agency on aging will have information about trustworthy volunteers, adult day care providers, private care aides, handling the financial burdens of care, and home health companies. One or more of these services on a regular schedule can provide time for you to think of yourself and meet your own needs.

Consider respite care. In addition, 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. 

Get emotional support. During your precious free time, 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.

Know the signs of caregiver burnout. If you are normally positive and gentle and become negative or check out entirely, you might be experiencing caregiver burnout. It’s characterized by physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. You might have the urge to withdraw from family and friends or feel depressed, hopeless, or irritable.  You might have trouble sleeping or experience 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. 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. In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255.

Some of 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.

Lisa Downing-Forget, MD, is an internal medicine physician who specializes in caring for patients over the age of 60. She works at SVMC Internal Medicine, part of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.

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