For many people, there's no hesitation to help out when it's time to care for a loved one who's lost independence due to health problems, old age, dementia or any other reason. Existing workloads are rearranged, large sacrifices are made of time, effort and money, and the well-being of the loved one in need is given top concern. Often without medical training or even much notice, these people rise to the unexpected challenge of maintaining another person's health, daily routines, eating, sleeping and bathing schedules, medical appointments and financial obligations.
The caregiver's life may soon seem no longer recognizable to him or her. Hard-earned careers sometimes must be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. Daily exercise and alone time are now little more than daydreams. Daily victories seem to be greatly outnumbered by daily setbacks in the care giving of the homebound loved one. Self-expectations remain high and personal disappointments pile higher.
Resentments may grow, leading to feelings of guilt and anger. Anxiety and isolation seem to have no relief in sight. These are common feelings among caregivers, and they are symptoms of caregiver burnout -- total exhaustion of the mind, body and spirit. In this article, we'll talk about five ways to avoid burnout by dealing with the burdens of caring for another. First up: taking care of the caregiver.
Put your health first
When you fly on an airplane, the pre-flight safety presentation never fails to mention that you should first take care of yourself, and then others in case that oxygen mask drops down before you and the cabin suddenly feels cold and windy. "Take care of yourself, then others" is good advice at 35,000 feet -- and everywhere else as well.
It's not a matter of deserving time to yourself when you take on the role of caregiver, even though you do. The fact is, you need a regular opportunity to renew, refresh and reclaim some part of your life, a part that's all your own, whether it's a few days a week or even just half an hour a day.
Try to get daily exercise or even just get outside for half an hour a few times a week and move around. You don't have to belong to a gym: Get some sunshine if you can, take a walk or do whatever you can to get your blood flowing.
If you normally attend religious services (or are interested in doing so), see if you can arrange for someone to watch your loved one while you attend service.
It takes effort to take care of yourself, but it's worth it. Your continued well-being is an integral part of your loved one's long-term care plan. Remember: the decision to care for yourself isn't just for your own sake -- your loved one needs you to be at your best.
It's important to learn as much as you can about your loved one's illness or condition. This will allow you to provide better care and feel more confident in the care you provide. It will also alleviate some of that fear of the unknown that all of us experience, especially in circumstances as difficult as providing care to a loved one.
If you help transport your loved one to and from doctors' appointments, take the opportunity to ask doctors any questions you have about the condition. Medical care providers want their patients to benefit from informed decisions and planning in the home, and you need their information in order to provide that. Many times, as with dementia, the care recipient may not always be able to think or communicate effectively with doctors or specialists. It is important to act as an advocate and ask any questions the care recipient himself may have asked were he able to do so.
Learning about the stages of dementia or any other progressive condition will also let you know what's still to come. This will keep you from having unattainable expectations or false hopes. But it will also allow you to establish common terms with the condition itself, allowing you to recognize your victories -- no matter how small they are -- when they occur. Try to consider your self-education as a caregiver an ongoing pursuit.
Knowing what can -- and can't -- be changed about the situation will help you avoid burnout.
Earlier, we discussed the importance of securing time for yourself. The best way to do this is to recruit those who can help. There are many organizations and networks that may be able to provide you with advice, support or access to more information or resources. Your loved one's medical care providers should be able to suggest resources available to you in your area, or you can check the phone book or Internet. Your religious organization of choice may have resources available, as there are likely to be several members in every organization going through the same situation you are.
It is important to seek out family, friends and even neighbors to help out with the cause. Not only will it lessen some of the burden on you, it will also keep the care recipient's personal community updated, informed and involved in the care giving.
If possible, schedule at least semi-regular meetings between interested or involved parties. These don't have to be face-to-face meetings. Collect phone numbers and e-mail addresses of others who have connections or relationships with the care recipient. Update these people to keep them aware of changes, medical or personal developments, and -- just as important -- to let them know when you need help.
No matter what you think you can or should do, the truth is you cannot bear the entire responsibility for providing care for a disabled loved one. The longer you expect any different of yourself, the more burned out you're going to get.
Learn coping strategies
Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a correlation between the length of time care has been provided and the amount of stress felt by the caregiver [source: Parks]. This seems to indicate that our personal coping strategies -- the way we deal with adversity -- has more to do with our sense of increased burden than most other factors.
With increased feelings of isolation, guilt or even anger, abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs or street drugs can seem like an avenue of escape or relief. Of course, taking this route only adds to one's burdens and inability to cope with the situation at hand.
Don't forget how important a role you are playing for the care recipient, the family and even the community. It may not have been the life you envisioned leading at this time in your life, but there is great value and nobility in your efforts. Don't forget that you're not an expert. You're a concerned and caring person doing the best you can. Make time to connect with a friend, confidante, counselor or spiritual advisor. Sometimes just having someone listen is more important than what's actually being said.
Many of us internalize our anxiety instead of reaching out for help, as we discussed earlier. Other family members may be waiting for a cue from you -- a more obvious cue than you may think is necessary -- before they get involved. Give them the cue they need.
Expecting the impossible -- such as a full recovery from age-related dementia -- only leads us to greater heartache when that outcome doesn't materialize. That's why it's important to set realistic expectations and goals to alleviate caregiver burden. Over time, you'll learn which tasks are more important, and which goals simply won't pan out.
Understanding the condition that requires your presence as a caregiver can better prepare you for the progression of the condition. Caregivers often tend to those who are in the final stages of life. While there may be no hope for recovery, there can be personal satisfaction in aiding another human as he or she prepares to make the transition from life to death. No matter what, it's important to recognize your own personal limits and needs.
Feelings of being overwhelmed, lonely, or angry are common among caregivers, and you shouldn't feel guilty about such thoughts. But neither should you focus too much on them, because that won't ultimately help either. Find a local network or support group for caregivers to see how others are coping with the situation. Knowing that you won't have all the answers by yourself will free you to seek outside assistance and get the answers you need. Taking care of someone is an especially difficult task. Accepting that you'll have many hard days can make all your days a little more manageable.
For more information on care giving and dealing with caregiver burden, see the next page.
What happens when the child becomes the parent? Being a caregiver to your parent can be a hard job. Get tips and information on when a child becomes the parent.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc. "Preventing Caregiver Burnout." (April 6, 2009) http://www.agingcarefl.org/caregiver/fourStages/stageThree/section01
- Biskupic, Joan. "A new page in O'Connors' love story." USAToday. Nov. 13, 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-11-12-court_N.htm Cleveland Clinic. "Signs of Caregiver Stress." (April 6, 2009) http://my.clevelandclinic.org/geriatrics/caregivers/signs_of_caregiver_stress.aspx
- Family Care Research Program. "Caregiver Burnout." Aug. 25, 2004. http://www.cancercare.msu.edu/patients-caregivers/issues/caregiverburnout.htm
- Parks, Susan Mockus, M.D.; Novielli, Karen D., M.D. "A Practical Guide to Caring for Caregivers."American Family Physician. Dec. 15, 2000. http://www.aafp.org/afp/20001215/2613.html
- Schmall, Vicki L.; Stielh, Ruth E. "Coping with Caregiving: How to Manage Stress When Caring For Older Relatives." June 2003. http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/pdf/pnw/pnw315.pdf
- U.S. Census Bureau. "Projections of the Population by Selected Age Groups and Sex for the United States: 2010 to 2050." 2008. http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/summarytables.html
- WebMD. "Recognizing Caregiver Burnout." (April 6, 2009) http://women.webmd.com/caregiver-recognizing-burnout