By Lisa M. Petsche
All sorts of informal (unpaid) caregivers provide practical assistance and enhance the quality of life for ill older people who might otherwise require placement in a long-term care residence. The typical caregiver is a spouse or offspring; many are seniors themselves.
The help they provide ranges from chauffeuring, shopping, running errands and paying bills to grounds keeping, housekeeping, preparing meals, managing medication, assisting with personal care (bathing, dressing, grooming and toileting) and assisting with mobility (ambulation, transferring from one location to another and changing position in bed). Needs usually increase over time.
Other typical caregiver responsibilities include coordinating care and advocating for the ill person’s needs. If their relative is cognitively impaired, they may also provide supervision to ensure safety. In addition, caregivers provide companionship and emotional support.
Although it has rewards, the caregiving role can be physically, psychologically, emotionally and financially demanding. This often heavy load is exacerbated by the limited availability of community support services.
The caregiving journey is particularly challenging when it continues over a long period of time, and when the elder has complex needs, a demanding personality or mental impairment. A variety of emotions may be experienced along the way, including sadness, grief, frustration, anger, resentment, guilt, anxiety and loneliness.
While a certain degree of stress is inevitable, when left unchecked it can lead to burnout, a serious matter. It’s important to watch for the following physical warning signs: chronic fatigue, sleep difficulties, significant weight loss or gain, frequent illness and development of chronic health problems. Memory problems are also common, as is social isolation.
Emotional red flags include frequent crying; frequent irritation by small annoyances; difficulty controlling one’s temper; feeling overwhelmed; feeling inadequate; feeling alone; and feeling hopeless. In severe cases, burnout can lead to abuse of the care receiver; this signals the need for immediate help.
If you are a caregiver, consider these strategies for keeping stress manageable and preventing burnout.
- Accept the reality of your relative’s illness. There is nothing you can do to stop it.
- Learn as much as possible about the illness and its management, and educate family and friends to help them understand.
- Pick your battles; don’t make a major issue out of every concern.
- Use positive self-talk. Emphasize phrases such as “I can,” “I will” and “I choose.”
- Nurture your spirit. Do things that bring inner peace, such as meditating, praying, reading something uplifting, writing in a journal or listening to music.
- Create a relaxation room or corner in your home – a tranquil spot you can retreat to in order to rejuvenate.
- Develop a calming ritual to help you unwind at the end of the day. Avoid watching the news before going to bed.
- Look after your health: eat nutritious meals, get adequate rest, exercise and see your primary physician regularly.
- Stay connected to your friends and community groups to which you belong. Minimize contact with negative people.
- Simplify your life. Set priorities and don’t waste time or energy on unimportant things. If finances permit, hire a housecleaning service or a personal support worker or companion for your relative, to free up some of your time and energy.
- Be flexible about plans and expectations. Recognize that there will be good days and bad days, and what you can give may vary from day to day. Take things one day at a time
- Give yourself permission to feel all the emotions that surface, including resentment and frustration. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you lose patience. Remind yourself that you are doing your best and are only human.
- Don’t keep problems to yourself – seek support from a family member, friend or counselor. Join a community caregiver support group (some offer concurrent care), or an Internet group if it’s hard to get out.
- Accept offers of help. Ask other family members to share the load. Be specific about the kind of help you need. Find out about community support services – including respite care options – and take full advantage of them. (Information can be obtained from your local office on aging.)
- Don’t promise your relative you will never place him or her in a long-term care home, because you don’t know what the future holds.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer specializing in health and elder care issues.