Chances are that, to some degree, you been a family caregiver for your loved one for some time now. To one degree or another, you’ve been tending to their needs: taking frequent phone calls, grocery shopping with (or without) them, and performing chores around their home.
Whether you are the child, sibling, or the spouse of your loved one, you’ll be feeling the emotional and physical strain of the role you’re playing. There’s an uncomfortable shift in the dynamics between you.
If you’re the child, you’ve become a parent of sorts. If you’re the spouse, you’re forced into a new and often unwelcome level of intimacy. And, if you’re a sibling, it’s imperative that your decisions not be clouded by childhood memories or resentments.
Being aware of these shifts in roles and responsibilities is the first step in self- care for the caregiver (that’s you, remember). The second step could be to seek support and assistance. One great resources is National Caregiver Support Groups. These groups can put you in touch with their local chapters. In addition, you can get information regarding support groups in your area from local nursing homes or eldercare agencies.
The Effects of Caregiver Stress
Dealing with the health problems of someone you love naturally produces stress in your life. It can wear you down, both emotionally, and physically.
I mentioned in my opening story that at one point in my mother’s illness, I was driving hundreds of miles each week to visit her in the hospital or skilled nursing facility. My mother’s condition was the result of a sudden event – which is different from the lingering decline described as part of the assessment process. With such a dramatic event comes shock, guilt and acute sorrow.
The time spent on the road gave me hours to think about how things could have been different; the traveling to and from her bedside took time away from my work, and my relationships. The stress of my mother’s illness was dominating my life and had manifested itself in many ways.
Stress manifests itself in three ways: physically, cognitively and emotionally. Below is a list of stress symptoms. Looking back at that period in my life, I realize stress has manifested itself in many of those symptoms.
- Sore back / stiff neck
- Sexual dysfunction
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty in making decisions
- Decreased problem-solving ability
- Obsessive thinking
- Short-term memory loss
- Decreased concentration
- Drop in organization skills
- Limited attention span
- Loss of interest in hobbies or recreational activities
- Frequent crying or tearfulness
- Persistent sadness or depression
- Chronic anxiety
Are you currently suffering from one or more of these symptoms of caregiver stress? I’m not surprised! Even in the early stages in dealing with the chronic health issues of a loved one – whether parent, sibling or spouse – you’ll find that you’ve become (more or less) tolerant of many of these manifestations of stress.
What I’ve learned is simple: taking care of yourself is essential to the well-being of your loved one. Here’s a short list of some of the things you can do to support yourself during the coming weeks:
Seek support from others. Turn to your loved one’s neighbors and friends; or other family members. They may be able to spend a few hours caregiving while you run errands, or even just take a short nap. Don’t feel you have to do it all alone!
Find a way to release your emotions. If you’ve got a pastor, spiritual advisor, close friend, or a therapist – someone you can trust 100% – be sure to reach out to them. They will be able to listen to you lovingly, and keep what you tell them to themselves.
Take time for yourself. If you like to walk on the beach, go shopping, take your dog to the park, or simply go see a movie – do it! Do not procrastinate on this: taking time for simple pleasures every day is critical to your well-being.
Simplify your life. Ask yourself this question: What can I let go of right now? Maybe you shouldn’t tackle new projects at work; maybe you should let go of hunting for that new house – whatever you can put ‘on the back burner,’ now is the time to do just that.
Avoid excessive alcohol or drugs. Ah, the temptations of self-medication. Don’t give into them. It’s not the wise path; ultimately, the care you are trying to provide suffers, and you’re less able to take care of the other things in life. Your job, marriage or parenting duties will suffer. That’s why I highly recommend the next tip:
Continue or begin an exercise program. It’s been clearly proven: aerobic exercise causes the brain to produce endorphins, which are your body’s natural way to enhance your mood and relieve your stress. Find a way to build regular exercise into your week: walk, run, practice T’ai chi; go bowling or play a round of golf with friends. Note: Always check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program!
Do yoga. Yoga can be a fantastic stress reliever which providing a great deal of exercise and better flexibility. I cannot recommend Yoga enough, as it alone helps me reduce my stress level and irritability. A note for the men reading this book: Yoga can be hard work, very challenging and a great way to relax and build muscle. Don’t think Yoga is effeminate or too easy!
In the wonderful book, When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home Care, the authors, Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand help their readers to build a long-term plan, based on six principles:
- Plan ahead. It may be a difficult subject to broach with your loved one, but planning ahead provides them with the opportunity to fully participate in the decision-making process.
- Get advice. Don’t discount the value of speaking with those people who have been down this same road. Join a support group (online or offline), and speak with doctors, nurses and health care professionals. When it’s financial or legal advice you need, turn to attorneys and accountants.
- Get others involved. Share the workload with family members, co- workers, and friends. Remember they care about you, and would love to help when they can – so don’t hesitate to ask!
- Keep colleagues informed. Those people in your workplace need to be taken into your confidence; they’ll want to know why you’re frequently absent from your desk, or unable to take on additional work.
- Take care of yourself. We’ve already touched upon ‘self-care’ as being critical not only to your well-being but to the well-being of your loved one as well.
- Put things in perspective – and keep them there! Short-term thinking (“Things are falling apart and will never get better”) is a trap. As I’ve learned so clearly, people grow through adversity, and you’ll never be able to know just how this growth will manifest itself. Remember that change is inevitable…“this too shall pass.”
Photo Credit: lululemon athletica.