By Lisa M. Petsche
Strokes are the leading cause of long-term adult disability in this country. Approximately 600,000 Americans experience one each year.
Twenty-five percent are left with minor impairments, while 50 percent experience moderate to severe disability.
Stroke can result in not only physical impairment but mental deficits as well. Paralysis or weakness on one side of the body is the most obvious sign of brain damage, but mobility, personal care, communication, mood, memory and problem-solving ability can also be affected.
Without a doubt, stroke is a life-altering experience – not only for survivors but also for their loved ones.
Like the survivor, family members initially experience a wide range of feelings. These may include shock, relief, denial, fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and frustration. It is a time of grieving losses, for life may never return to the way it used to be.
In the midst of such upheaval, it is common for relationships within a family to become strained.
Impaired speech or language comprehension can make it difficult for the survivor to successfully communicate with relatives. Chemical changes in the brain can also cause sudden, uncontrollable crying.
In addition, some people undergo a personality change following a stroke. Depression is also common, manifested by irritability or indifference and withdrawal.
Such changes can lead family members to feel that they no longer know their relative very well. Furthermore, they may feel that no one else understands what they and their family are going through. It can be a lonely time.
Uncertainty about the future – for example, how much functioning their relative will recover and whether he or she will be able to return home – also contributes to stress.
Spouses or adult children may be overwhelmed by the number and type of decisions that need to be made, such as those regarding rehabilitation options, equipment purchase, home modifications and other discharge planning considerations. They may have to take over practical tasks such as managing finances, preparing meals and housekeeping. In addition, they may be expected to assume the role of hands-on caregiver, assisting with dressing, grooming, bathing and toileting. Feelings of doubt and resentment may surface, closely followed by guilt.
The following are some strategies for keeping stress manageable:
- Learn as much as possible about stroke, and educate family and friends.
- Include your relative in conversations, even if their ability to participate is limited. If communication is difficult, ask the hospital speech-language pathologist for suggestions.
- Attend some therapy sessions with your relative, to show support and learn what they are and aren’t able to do.
- Focus on progress made, however small the steps, and encourage your relative to do the same.
- Continue to involve your relative in family activities and community events. If they are using a wheelchair, register with the accessible transportation service in your area.
- Take things one day at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.
- Find at least one person you can talk to openly, who will listen and empathize. Consider joining a support group for families of stroke survivors.
- Look after your physical and mental health; the latter includes staying connected to friends and outside activities. Schedule a regular break from visiting in the hospital or caregiving at home.
- Ask other family members to help out. If your relative will be returning home or is already home with you, find out about available community support services and make use of them.
- Be patient. Allow plenty of time to adjust to the changes in your lifestyle and your relationship with your loved one. Look for ways to include laughter and joy in each day – this will enhance your relationship and help foster a positive outlook.
Lisa M. Petsche is a medical social worker and a freelance writer who has personal and professional experience with elder care.