What is a caregiver? A caregiver is someone who provides support and helps an ill, elderly, disabled, or incapacitated person with the tasks of daily living. While some people hire professional caregivers to take care of a family member's or their own needs, often a person's family member or another members of her support system will step into that role. If you are performing this duty for a family member (mother, father, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or someone else) or friend and are unpaid, you are what is known as an informal caregiver.
A caregiver's tasks and responsibilities may vary depending on the situation, the relationship, and the people involved. You might help with tasks like bathing, eating, preparing meals, and taking medicine. Additionally, you might perform housekeeping duties such as laundry and grocery shopping, as well as help your loved one with exercise and other activities. You might also take your loved one to doctor's appointments and other meetings. Additionally, you could be responsible for making important decisions regarding your loved ones finances, home, and health care.
While serving as the primary caregiver for a loved one can be rewarding at times, it can also be stressful and exhausting and can take an enormous toll on your mental and physical health. The changing nature of your relationship with your family member and the burden of being the primary caregiver and supporting your loved one who may be unable to fully appreciate your sacrifices can be enough to drain or overwhelm a person, particularly when you are handling your own problems on top of it.
Caregiver stress is common among people who are responsible for taking care of and elderly, ill, or incapacited family member. People may experience anxiety, depression, irritability, outburts, frustration, moodiness, memory issues, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and dissatisfaction eith their personal or professional lives. Some family caregivers may feel out of control, become argumentative, and have substance abuse problems. You may notice that your relationships with other family members change as well, especially if they live in the same household with you. For instance, your stress may impact your relationships with your partner and children, who will likely notice your changes in mood and behavior.
Some caregivers are more likely to suffer from caregiver stress than others, although no one is immune to the challenges of serving as a caregiver. According to the Mayo Clinic, if you are female, have fewer years of formal education, live with the person for whom you are providing care, are socially isolated, suffer from depression, spend an above-average number of hours providing care, have financial difficulties, do not have strong coping skills, and do not have a choice in your caregiver status and role, you may be more likely to suffer from caregiver stress than others in a similar role.
As a family caregiver, you may be ignoring your own mental health and physical health in order to make your loved one's care a priority, but you shouldn't. Doing so may lead you to severe stress and burnout, and you can't afford to sacrifice your own well-being for the sake of helping your loved one. Additionally, you won't be able to provide the proper care your loved one needs if you are not staying on top of your own mental and physical health.
Fortunately, there are some resources and support systems you can use to help you through the challenges and difficulties you experience in this role.
1. Look for resources in your community.
There may be many resources in your community that can give you a short break from your responsibilities. Look into whether there is an adult daycare facility in your community that provides senior care. Bringing your loved one to a center for a little while will allow you take a few hours to accomplish the other things you need to do, such as go to work, pick up your kids, go grocery shopping, or even just relax.
Additionally, look into taking classes for informal caregivers at a local hospital or community center. You might learn valuable information on how to provide the best care for your family member, deal with problems and issues that arise, and take care of your mental health.
2. Lean on your support system.
You shouldn't have to do this alone. Just because you are the family caregiver doesn't mean you can't take breaks and lean on others. Having caregiver support is extremely important for maintaining your own mental health and well-being.
If you have a rough day, talk to someone. Whether it is a friend, another family member, or a therapist, it is always helpful to have someone to talk to, even if you are just venting your frustrations. Go to someone you can trust to be supportive and not judge you for anything you tell them. Make sure it is someone you can lean on—maybe even someone who has leaned on you in the past.
Remember that caregiver support is essential for keeping your energy up and taking care of your own needs. Providing long-term care to a loved one can present many challenges, and it is important to have people who can support you through it. Also keep in mind that if you want another support system in addition to friends and family members, a therapist can also provide helpful strategies for taking care of your own health and well-being in addition to just listening to you.
3. Join a caregiver support group.
Family caregivers usually aren't the only ones in their communities who are taking care of the health and well-being of loved ones. Often, there are other people going through the same thing. Join a support group to share your personal experiences, discusses challenges, pick up tips and advice, and simply listen and talk to others who are going through the same experience as you.
There may be general support groups as well as support groups geared toward family members of people with the same illness, such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Talk to your family member's health care provider or hospital staff to see if they have any information or resources for general or more niche support groups in your area. They may also have additional caregiver resources to support you as well. You could also talk to the clergy or staff at your religious organization, if you belong to one, who might be able to help you find an appropropriate support group to join. Your organization might even host its own support group for people in situations similar to yours. Your could also ask friends who have gone through or are going through similar experiences if they attending meetings through a group or look online.
In addition to in-person support groups, you can also find online forums for people in your situation. This can be helpful if you are uncomfortable sharing your experiences with people who know you; you have the protection of anonymity, if you want it.
4. Take some time for yourself.
Make sure you stay on top of your own needs in addition to your family member's needs. Doing so can help you avoid burnout. Continue to do the things that you enjoy doing. Spend time with family and friends. Go for a run. Read a good book. Cook a good meal.
And remember to treat yourself every once in awhile. Go to the spa. Take a long bubble bath. Have a glass of wine. You deserve it!
5. Take care of your physical health.
Maintaining your health and staying strong will help you and your loved one. You can't perform your caregiver duties if you are exhausted and sick.
Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep every night. You will be more productive, alert, and able to handle the demands of your schedule and tasks.
You should also make sure to eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet full of foods like vegetables, fruits, and protein-rich foods like nuts and beans. These foods will help you maintain your energy and keep you strong. Try to avoid consuming too much sugar and caffeine. They will give you a momentary boost, but you will end up crashing later and will feel sluggish.
Exercising regularly has a lot of health and mental health benefits anyway, and making sure you are engaging in daily exercise—even just a long, brisk walk—will help you relieve stressm stay fit, and stay alert and energized.
Let your health care provider know that your are a primary caregiver, and schedule regular appointments and checkups. You need to be healthy in order to take proper care of your family member. Your doctor may also be able to provide caregiver resources to help you manage the difficulties and challenges of taking care of your loved one and avoid stress and burnout. She will also know what questions to ask when you come for routine checkups and support you in managing your emotional well-being in addition to your physical well-being.
Now is also a good time to try some new ways for combating stress and maintaining your health and well-being. Meditiation and relaxation exercises can be very useful in helping you stay calm and combat tension and anxiety. Try to incorporate a few minutes of meditation or guided mindfulness exercises into your daily routine, and you will likely find that doing so helps you relax and clear your head.
6. Ask for help.
Remember: Leaning on others and using your support system is essential for maintaining your energy to provide the best long-term care possible for your family member.
If you need help, don't hesitate to ask for it. And if someone offers to give you support, accept it. This could mean sitting with your loved one for an hour or two while you run errands or take a break to recharge. Or it could mean picking up your dry cleaning or some groceries. If someone offers to do a specific task, like shoveling your driveway during a snowstorm or picking up your kids from school, take them up on it. In fact, it is best to allow your support system choose how they want to help; that way, you won't feel like you are putting a burden on them, and they won't feel like they are doing something out of their comfort zone. Allow them to help in whatever way they feel most comfortable helping.
Try to share the responsibilities with your other family members, if they are available and willing. For example, if you are providing in-home care to your elderly parent and living with him or her, ask your siblings if they can chip in as well. Perhaps someone could handle grocery shopping and doctor's appointments or work on your parent's finances to ease the burden providing full-time care puts on you.
7. Focus on what you can do, not on what you can't do.
Informal caregivers have a difficult and demanding role. At times, it may feel like a full-time job. And if you already have a full-time job, dealing with the added stress of taking care of your family member is enough to overwhelm a person.
That is why it is so important to take it day by day, hour by hour. Instead of focusing on the things that are out of your control, focus on what you can do.
For example, you can't cure your loved one. You can make her feel as comfortable as possible and provide every measure of support that is within your control. You can't expect her to appreciate everything you do for her, especially if she suffers from an illness that impares her memory or ability to understand her surroundings. You can take comfort in knowing how she would respond if she were not ill. You can't do absolutely everything by yourself. You can allow others to help and support you and show gratitude and appreciation for any kind gesture or measure of support, however small it may be. You can't expect people to read your mind. You can ask for help if you need it.
Focusing on the actions you can take to help yourself and your loved one will allow you to achieve a better outlook. Think of focusing on what you can do as opposed to what you can't do as a glass-half-full approach. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of the situation—the things that are beyond your or anyone else's control—you are considering how you can make the situation just a little bit easier on yourself and the person in your care.
Providing care for an ill or elderly family member can be challenging and stressful. On top of your own needs and those of your other family members and friends, you need to provide constant, around-the-clock care to someone whom you are probably not used to supporting in this way. In addition to the difficulties involved with being this kind of caregiver, you may also be struggling with the changing nature of your relationship with the person in your care and the potential change in roles that comes with it. For instance, if you are taking care of your elderly or ill mother or father, this will represent a dramatic departure from the roles with which you are more familiar—your parent as a the provider and you as the recipient of her care and attention. It may be difficult and troubling to assume your new role as the provider and main support system for your parent, and it may be equally challenging to see your parent in a position in which she lacks control and does not seem like her "normal" self.
It is important to take your responsibilities one step at a time. Taking care of your loved one is an enormous responsibility, as well as an enormous challenge. In order to provide the best care for your loved one, you need to take care of yourself first. That means making sure you are paying attention to your personal health and well-being and doing everything you can to keep your energy high and your anxiety low.
If your responsibilities become too challenging for you to handle on your own, consider looking into alternatives for care. Respite care can offer you a break from the stress of serving as the primary caregiver and handling all the overwhelming feelings that come with it. You might hire an in-home health aid to take care of your loved one while you are at work or look into options for adult care centers and support groups. Some nursing home provide short-term care for people who need help. If you are planning to travel or just need a short break, consider other forms of support to help your loved one in your absence.