When it comes to taking care of a sick loved one, many people give it all they’ve got. But caring too much can lead to unsustainable stress levels that end up hurting everyone. So before becoming consumed by caregiver duties, take care of yourself – and, whatever you do, don’t go it alone.
If you’ve flown on an airplane lately, you may recall the flight attendant instructing you to place a mask on yourself first, before you assist a loved one in an emergency situation. The logic is simple: if you don’t place yourself first, you’ll be in no condition to assist someone else.
Caregiving can be similar. The patient is not the only one who suffers under the weight of an illness: often an entire family or group of friends is impacted when someone they are close to is battling a condition or disease. And, if they aren’t careful, caregivers can become overwhelmed, lessening their abilities to truly provide effective care.
Caregiver stress is becoming more and more common. This is, in part, because over 10,000 people per day turn 65. The Baby Boomer generation — an enormous population of Americans — is aging, and many of them will turn to family and friends for assistance with a host of medical concerns: everything from questions on how to take their prescription drugs to whether or not to see a doctor about an undiagnosed medical concern. And they won’t just need help with medical issues, either. As they experience the chronic conditions associated with aging, they will need help with many other aspects of their lives. Arthritis may result in the need for help with grocery shopping. Diminished eyesight or hearing could translate into the need for a hand with other basic errands.
Everyday life is already pretty stressful. “Work/life balance” can be hard to find, especially if you have a demanding job and an immediate family of your own to raise. The sudden responsibility to care for someone else can be especially draining on top of all of the other people who are counting on you daily for support. And when you become overstressed, it creates a ripple effect, leaving all of your dependents feeling the deficit in support stress can create.
Of course, it’s important to be able to detect the symptoms of stress, in yourself and in others who are in caregiver roles. Stress can manifest itself as anger or anxiety. It can lead to a caregiver being physically and mentally exhausted. Perhaps they are irritable or overcome with a sense of guilt or a feeling they aren’t doing enough to help. Often they can experience many of these symptoms but deny it when someone raises a concern over their stress level.
It’s important to understand that those in need of care and those who care for them have their own unique set of stressors that often play off each other. For those who are dealing with a chronic condition, they may be struggling with an inability or lessened ability to work or with changes in personal and professional relationships directly related to their illness. They may also struggle with the side effects of prescribed medications, or with healthcare costs. On the other hand, the caregiver is dealing with finding the right balance between providing adequate care while still maintaining a life beyond the caregiver role. They may be asking themselves: How am I going to handle these extra demands of my time and energy? How do I tell my kids I can’t always attend their extracurricular activities because grandma needs me more? How do I ask my boss for time off again to take care of my sick family member? When do I get a break?
Many people never attempt to answer these questions and instead silently forge ahead, never truly managing their stress levels. These people, who often become depressed, are even referred to by some in the medical community as “hidden patients.”
“Not hiding” is of course an important first step to unburdening yourself of this kind of stress. Ask for help! If you’re the only one in your family taking care of an elderly parent, for instance, enlist the support of siblings or of your own children. If it can be avoided, don’t take it all on by yourself. Create a network for support and use it to support not only the person who is sick, but also you.
How do you support yourself? Well, for one thing, caregivers need to take time off from caregiving. If you let it, taking care of a sick friend or relative can often become all-consuming and lead to mental and physical burn out. Backing up your support with professional agencies that provide care may be one option to giving you some much-needed time off. If you are caring for someone at the end of their life, consider palliative or hospice care.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed and ineffective, it’s not only okay to ask for help, it’s a good idea. For example, rather than be consumed with worry over whether your aging father is taking his medications properly, ask your pharmacist for help and a thorough explanation of each medication and the regimen associated with it. You can also use tools like CVS/pharmacy’s Prescription Management Service to make it easier to manage your loved one’s prescriptions. Find peace of mind through knowledge and control over the aspects of care you have assumed.
If you find your stress level becomes unmanageable, just remember what that flight attendant says, and place that mask over your own face first – then take a deep breath, and ask for some help. Ultimately everyone, including the person you’re caring for, will benefit from the fact that the first person you took care of was you.
PRIMARY SOURCE: “Caregiver Stress: The Impact of Chronic Disease on the Family, Elissa Sonnenberg, MSEd