By Lisa M. Petsche
Caring for a chronically ill or frail senior relative can offer many rewards, but it also involves physical, psychological and emotional demands. It can be particularly challenging when the care receiver has heavy hands-on needs, a difficult personality or mental impairment.
Stress can be further compounded by certain thoughts and belief systems. Read on for some common misconceptions among caregivers and the unhealthy behaviors that typically result.
- They can and should do all of the caregiving alone.
- No one else can take good care of their relative.
- Medical professionals are wrong about their relative’s diagnosis, prognosis or healthcare needs. (Reasons for misconception: the medical opinion is too painful to consider; or, the caregiver distrusts healthcare professionals because of past negative experiences.)
- Devoting all of their time and energy to the caregiving role.
- Promising the care receiver or the family that they will never place the relative in long-term-care.
- Withholding from other family members information about their relative’s condition and needs.
The following are adaptive coping strategies caregivers can use to prevent falling into destructive behavior patterns.
- An important first step is to accept the reality of your relative’s illness. Allow yourself to experience all of the emotions that surface. Make a conscious decision to let go of any bitterness resulting from unrealized plans and dreams, so you can move forward and channel your energy in constructive ways.
- Accept that how your relative feels and what they can do may fluctuate, and be flexible about plans. Unrealistic expectations will only result in frustration for both of you.
- Ask a friend to research your relative’s health condition. Share the information among family members. Knowledge is power.
- Be open to learning practical skills, such as proper transferring and bathing techniques. Mastering these tasks will help make caregiving safer and less stressful. The local Area Agency on Aging is a good resource for care information, including community services that can assist your relative and you.
- Be patient and keep communication lines open as you and your relative adjust to the illness.
- Ensure the family is kept current about changes in your relative’s status and include them in decision-making as much as possible.
- Find a medical specialist whom you and your relative respect and trust. Ask about what to expect during the course of the illness in terms of probable symptom progression as well as caregiving skills, medical equipment and community supports likely to be needed.
- Help your relative get their affairs in order, including completing legal paperwork such as advance directives, powers of attorney and a will.
- Talk openly with your relative about their wishes. Discuss living arrangements, outside help, surrogate decision-making, advance directives and funeral arrangements. Since you don’t know what the future holds, be careful not to make promises you may not be able to keep.
- Eliminate as many sources of stress in your life as possible. Set priorities, streamline tasks and learn to settle for less than perfection. Hire help with personal care or household chores if finances permit.
- Take things one day at a time so you don’t become overwhelmed.
- Look after your physical health. Eat nutritious meals, get adequate rest, exercise and see your primary physician regularly.
- Set aside quiet time to nurture your spirituality and help keep you grounded. If applicable, turn to your religious faith for support.
- Do something that provides you with meaning and purpose outside of the caregiving role, such as scrapbooking or researching your family tree.
- Find something relaxing you can do to give yourself a daily break – perhaps reading or listening to music. In addition, schedule regular breaks from caregiving duties. Take a couple of hours, a day or an overnight. By being kind to yourself this way, you’ll also be more effective when you resume your caregiving tasks.
- Make an effort to stay connected to your friends. Find at least one person you can talk to openly – someone who will listen and empathize. It’s important to express your thoughts and feelings.
- Try talking with other caregivers. They understand better than anyone else what you are going through. Join a support group in your community or on the Internet.
- Accept offers of help. Ask other family members to share the load and be specific about the help you need. If you don’t have family nearby or they’re not willing or able to assist, take advantage of respite services in your community.
- You can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything alone.