While helping a loved one cope with disability, illness, or the effects of aging can make you feel useful and caring, it can also take a huge toll on you. Even if you don’t think of yourself as an official “caregiver,” providing help daily can often result in significant levels of stress. Learning how to manage that will make it easier to provide for the health and happiness of you and your loved one.
The instinct to care for an aging loved one is selfless and rewarding – it’s also extremely common. Reports suggest 1 in 3 adults is acting as an informal caregiver, even if they don’t self-identify as one. Whether it’s an ill spouse or relative, or a disabled child, you may find yourself responsible for all the daily tasks of your loved one’s life, including bathing, eating, dressing, and giving medicine.
Such a role may offer many positives, but it also comes with emotional upheaval. “The load of caring for a loved one is cumbersome,” explains Alisha Landes, executive director for The Lantern at Morning Pointe. “The pressure of making sure that they are safe, eating properly, and their needs are being met can result in extreme stress.”
It’s important to recognize the signs of caregiver stress and find ways to deal with the symptoms. Don’t let being a helper take a serious toll on your health, too.
Taking a Physical and Emotional Toll
When you’re on call around-the-clock, feeling overwhelmed is to be expected. But exhaustion, worry, and frequent head or body aches may become chronic, and that stress can lead to a multitude of issues. Amy Whipple, associate chief nursing officer for Parkridge Valley Adult & Senior Campus, explains, “Caregivers far and wide report difficulties attending to their own health and well-being while managing caregiving responsibilities. Some report sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, failure to exercise, and postponement of or failure to make medical appointments for themselves. They are also at increased risk for depression and increased use of alcohol and substances.”
If these symptoms sound familiar, it’s time to identify some strategies for relieving stress. Unresolved stress can allow depression and anxiety to take root, which increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, among others. It can also leave you with a weakened immune system, making you more susceptible to colds or flu, and making it harder to recover.
Learning to Cope
Statistics suggest that caregivers have a significantly higher mortality rate than non-caregivers, but coping mechanisms can help revive your vitality. Suggestions for de-stressing your caregiving role include:
Making a plan.
Making a plan for each day, with to-do lists and routines, can be a very effective way to reduce stress. It’s also helpful should you have a volunteer stop by, so they can easily see what needs to be done. Lists should also relieve you of the fear of forgetting something important, like doctor’s visits or medications.
Joining a support group.
“Caregivers should remember they are not alone,” explains Whipple. “There are many resources to assist in their journey.” Support groups can bring together others who are dealing with the same struggles, and feeling heard and understood is a powerful aid. They can also point you toward all the other resources you may be able to use.
Everyone needs an occasional break. If someone offers help, take them up on it! And if no one is offering, ask. Other family members can step in for a morning or entire day to give you time to yourself. Let them choose tasks they are comfortable with that still help. If family is not an option, try a service. Landes explains, “Sitter services can be a big help when you need to run errands or just get some time to make yourself healthy.” During this time, you can take mini-breaks to do something you enjoy.
Creating a good health routine.
Put regular physical activity into your daily plan. Pay attention to what you eat and make nutritious choices. You’ll feel better and stay healthier, and you should sleep better, as well. A good routine also includes keeping up with doctor’s appointments and being proactive about any issues you’re facing. Putting off dealing with any problems you may have will not serve you or your ailing loved one well. You will need to feel good to deal with everything that comes with caregiving.
Indulging yourself a little.
“There has to be time, however small, devoted to self-care,” says Landes. “If you are not healthy, and you’re running on all cylinders, you are not going to be an effective caregiver.” Get away occasionally for a manicure, nice dinner, or an evening with friends. Try to talk about things other than caregiving and put it out of your mind for a few hours. A short break is still better than none, and you’ll likely find it surprisingly restorative.
Sometimes, the caregiver role is too much for a single person. “It’s important to know your options when you are no longer able to handle the stress of caregiving,” says Whipple. “Some of these options include community resources in the home, personal in-home assistants, respite care, adult day care, caregiver retreats, or assisted living services.”
If your loved one has insurance, contact their provider and find out what health costs they cover. Medicare will cover some services, as will Medicaid, in some states. The National Eldercare Locator, which is maintained by the U.S. Administration of Aging, offers help in finding caregiving services near you. If your patient needs health insurance, check with the Marketplace plans at HealthCare.gov to see what is available.