When you step in to help someone you care about – whether they are chronically ill, have a disability, or need supervision and support because of advancing dementia – it can feel good. You know you’re making a difference when you help them with household chores, drive them to appointments, ensure they get the medications and treatments they need, and even help fulfill their wish to live at home as independently as possible.
Ninety-five percent of caregivers say the experience is worthwhile, according to a 2017 survey by The Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But more than three quarters of participants described caregiving as stressful or time consuming and the remainder most likely had rough days too.
Whether you’re a caregiver now or expect to be in the future, these are five things that can help.
Caregiving is stressful, but you can learn to manage that stress. Caregivers often fall into a cycle of depression and stress. More stress leads to more depression, which in turn reduces the ability to deal with stress. Paying attention to your own emotional health is crucial to having the capacity to continue your work as a caregiver.
• Making time for yourself is a great way to manage stress, and it’s essential for every caregiver. You need to have time off from your caregiver role to decompress and reenergize. Even short breaks, when someone takes over for 10–20 minutes, can give you the time and space to perhaps close your eyes and breathe deeply—or take a quick walk outside.
• Practicing mindfulness is another way to manage stress. Being mindful means taking time to recognize and appreciate what is happening now. Mindfulness helps us be in the moment instead of always rushing and worrying about the next task.
Taking care of your physical health really is important. Caregivers often put their personal health needs on the back burner to focus on caring for a loved one. Pay attention to your own health. Ignoring it and becoming sick yourself may make you unable to continue the work of caregiving. • Don’t skip medical appointments, medications, or health screenings. They’re important for maintaining and improving your health. • Get regular exercise. Add more physical activity to your daily routine. Even small increases in activity boost your self-esteem, reduce your risks for getting a chronic disease, and decrease stress levels.
You’ll need help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to find it. Your friends and family may offer help that isn’t helpful. Or they may not offer at all – maybe they think you’ve got everything under control – or they may not know how to help. And others may worry that you’ll ask them to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable.
• Ask for help. Start by asking for something small.
• Be specific with your request. Let your friend know what you need help with, what’s involved, and how much time it will take. Specifics make it easier for you to ask and easier for others to accept or counter.
• Call your local Council on Aging or Elder Services Agency. They have extensive resources for – and experience with – caregiving.
• Speak to your loved one’s health professionals. Let them know what your challenges are. They may have a solution or at least an idea that could make the situation easier.
Caregiving can affect relationships. Friends can make themselves scarce when they think you are too stressed or busy. Family members may have different ideas about how to care for mom or dad, and old family roles and arguments can get in the way of working together. Nurturing and maintaining friendships and family relationships may take effort and if you’re the primary caregiver you may have to be the one to take the lead.
• Invite friends and family to get together. It could be for breakfast, a walk, or just an at-home visit. Ask them to bring the food. You won’t have to worry about it and they will feel good about helping.
• Communicate. Let your friends and family know what’s going on and remind them you and your loved one want to stay in touch and help is appreciated.
It’s easy to get so involved in caregiving that you feel isolated and alone. Don’t push people away. Make an effort to socialize and get any help you need to stay connected to others.
• Call your friends. Even if they’ve never been caregivers, they can provide important support.
• Connect with other caregivers. They’ll understand what you’re going through in a way others won’t. If you don’t know any, join a support group in your community or online.
• Reach out to friends and family. They may have initially offered to support you, but have you taken them up on it? Don’t wait. Call.
• Talk to a therapist. A therapist can help you manage the feelings and stresses of being a caregiver. Remember, to those on the outside, you may seem to be handling the situation well – so well you don’t need friends and family. Let them know about the challenges you are facing, so they can help.
Gerald Gleich, M.D., is a geriatrician medical director for Fallon Health’s NaviCare program, a senior care options/medicare advantage special needs plan. He’s an associate professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and medical director at St. Mary Health Care Center in Worcester.
To read the entirety of the November 2019 edition of the Chamber Exchange, visit the newspaper archive.