If you’re caring for a sick spouse, child or parent, you know how taxing it can be to shoulder that responsibility. It’s important that as a caregiver you take the time you need to recharge and remain well.
Nearly 90 million Americans provide care for a loved one with a chronic condition, disability or the frailties of old age, according to the Caregiver Action Network. A survey by the National Alliance of caregiving and AARP showed that family caregivers spend an average of 20 hours a week providing care to a loved one with the responsibility lasting an average of 4.6 years.
Caregiving encompasses a broad range of activities from periodic monitoring, such as checking in with mom or dad to see whether everything is OK, to providing every aspect of basic needs like bathing, dressing and feeding a family member.
Dr. Terry Benson, a physician with Novant Health Senior Care in Charlotte, North Carolina, sees caregivers every day at his practice. They include people in their 40s and 50s with aging parents who may still be supporting their own children as well as people in their 60s who care for elderly parents.
Younger caregivers who are still working often have issues juggling caregiving responsibilities and work schedules, Benson said. The doctor advised being upfront with your employer and asking for a flexible work schedule, if possible.
While caregivers can find immense satisfaction in providing care to a loved one, the responsibility also can take a toll emotionally and physically. A majority of caregivers surveyed in another study reported that their health had deteriorated as a result of caregiving. The most prevalent effects on caregiver health were lack of sleep and energy, high stress, depression, headaches and weight gain or loss.
The impact caregiving has on work, managing time effectively and the expense of care also creates pressure on families and even guilt in the caregiver.
So how can someone manage it all?
“The best way to look after someone else is to take good care of you first,” Benson said. “These people are the last to see a doctor or to work out, but in order to be an effective caregiver, you need to put your health first.”
Most people are not prepared to assume the responsibilities of caregiving or haven’t given it adequate thought, Benson said. Some caregivers have told their parents that they would never put them in a nursing home. “Never make promises about what you will or won’t do,” he added.
Ways to deal with caregiver stress:
Take good physical care of yourself. Eat nutritious meals and don’t drink too much alcohol. Make sure you get adequate sleep. Exercise, even if you have to hire someone to help with the caregiving.
See your doctor. Make sure you get your checkups and inform your doctor of your caregiver responsibilities.
“Have a conversation with your doctor about your situation,” Benson said. “It helps the physician if they notice signs of depression or a change in a chronic condition such as high blood pressure. Your doctor can be your partner in helping out.”
Join a caregiver support group. It can be cathartic to vent some of your feelings with others sharing similar experiences. While Benson acknowledged specific groups for caregivers may be hard to find, he recommended the Family Caregiving in North Carolina guide issued by AARP as a helpful resource. “It has information on support services, taking over financial responsibility and getting the most benefit from Medicare and Medicaid,” Benson said.
Reconnect with friends. Don’t isolate yourself. It allows stress to build and can add to depression.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Recruit members of your church, friends, neighbors and relatives to pitch in. They could be simple tasks such as paying bills, making meals or researching resources that might be in the community to help out through the local agency on aging.
“It’s important to mobilize members of your family,” Benson said. “Have conversations with them and split up duties. Some people, often women, try to tackle everything on their own.”
Take a break. Go away for a long weekend. Assisted living facilities and nursing homes offer respite care and will take patients in for a short time, Benson said. “It’s OK to take time off to prevent getting physically ill.”
AARP also suggests using the services of an adult day care if an individual needs daytime supervision.
Find time to relax by doing something you enjoy. Read a book, go to a movie or take a walk. Some people benefit from visualization, meditation and prayer.
Seek professional help. If you feel overwhelmed or just need to talk to someone, consult a professional counselor.
Allow yourself to say “no.” Set your priorities, make lists and don’t take on things that create more work and are not necessary.
Novant Health has resources available to help caregivers here.