In the words of former First Lady Rosalyn Carter, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: Those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” Mrs. Carter draws attention to the fact that somewhere in life, each of us will experience the impact of the word caregiver.
Caregivers come from all walks of life. Currently there are 40.4 million unpaid caregivers providing care for adults age 65 and older. Most of these caregivers are between 45 and 64 years of age. 6 in 10 are still employed, and trying to maintain balance between careers, caring for their family, and caring for their aging loved ones. While the majority of caregivers are female (75%), male caregivers are steadily growing in number. Millennials are involved too with 10 million individuals ages 20 – 39 now caring for aging loved ones.
Regardless of age and circumstance, something most caregivers have in common is a general lack of “self care”. According to the Mayo Clinic , the emotional and physical demands experienced by caregivers creates stress that is often unrecognized. When stress is not managed properly, caregivers find themselves at an increased risk for personal health issues. Recognizing the warning signs of increased caregiver stress as early as possible is necessary in preventing serious health concerns.
The Mayo Clinic lists the following as signs that caregiver stress is present:
-Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
-Feeling tired all the time
-Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep
-Gaining or losing weight
-Becoming easily irritated or angry
-Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
-Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
-Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications
Managing Caregiver Stress – Step One: Recognize Signs of Stress
It is important to admit when signs of stress are present. Caregivers may feel guilty or ashamed to acknowledge to themselves or others when feeling tired, overwhelmed or unprepared for the load they carry. They may at times be so busy with the tasks of care giving, they fail to recognize when their personal stress is on the rise.
Stress affects different people in different ways. For some, the first signs of stress surface in sleep disturbances, irritability, and other symptoms related to inability to relax. For others, it may be the opposite wherein they become very tired, falling asleep at strange times, and struggling to get out of bed. Most everyone reports that when they are stressed, they feel they are unable to focus, become less organized, and have some form of increased anxiety as their stress levels increase.
Knowing your own personal “stress signals” and acknowledging when you are feeling stressed is key in managing stress. Caregivers are encouraged to share their feelings with friends, family members, and when needed, counselors who specialize in stress management.
Step Two: Accept Help When Offered
Recently I visited a friend who was caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease. Her mother was hospitalized subsequent to a fall requiring surgery for a broken leg. My friend was near exhaustion as she had been spending her days and nights at her mother’s side ensuring her needs were met. I offered to spend the night in her place so she could get some much needed rest. She declined, stating, “I couldn’t let you do that!” She moans and groans all night and it just wouldn’t be fair.” She thanked me for offering. My friend’s eyes were tired. Her hands rubbed her neck where the pain from sleeping on the hospital couch was bothering her. As we said goodbye, I could hear a nervous tremble in her weak voice. When I saw her four days later she had become ill with a terrible case of bronchitis.
Many caregivers feel it is their “duty” to be the care provider at all times, regardless of how physically tired or stressed they are. Accepting help when offered is necessary to conserve energy, regenerate, and maintain optimal health.
Step Three: Seek Support
The role of a caregiver often evokes emotions that are less than positive, including feelings of isolation. Establishing a circle of support provides an outlet for dealing with these emotions. Talking with close friends and family members can be helpful. Joining a support group or two is highly recommended. Support groups are an excellent place to find comfort and resources. An additional benefit of support groups is finding others who are going through the same challenges your are.
There are many types of support groups to choose from to meet the needs of all. Some meet in person, are large in size, and may have multiple meeting time options. Others may be small and intimate in setting. There are even on-line support group options to accommodate the busiest of schedules.
Step Four: Be Prepared
We check the weather before leaving our house to see if we need an umbrella. When running late for an appointment, we might check the traffic report to determine the best route. These are natural, every-day planning events to ensure we are prepared for whatever comes our way. Such planning helps to eliminate a bit of chaos in our life. If we never had umbrellas on rainy days and were always stuck in traffic jams, just imagine how stressful life would be.
To decrease some of the chaos in caregiving and ensure you are prepared for the unexpected, prepare the following: 1. Make a history sheet for the person cared for. Include their name, address, copies of insurance cards, name and phone number of emergency contact, and name and phone number of all physicians by specialty. (family doctor, neurologist, cardiologist, etc) 2. Make a medication and diagnoses page. List any surgeries, include the name, dose and specific instructions for each medication, and list all known allergies. (Save this document where it can be updated as changes occur) 3. Make a copy of any advance directives, living wills, power of attorney documents, or other legal documents that may exist.
Place a copy of each of the above in a notebook that is easily accessible when needed. Consider making multiple copies of each document and keeping them in clear view sheet protectors. You may need them when there are hospitalizations or when going to see a new physician for the first time.
Step Five: Education
Many caregivers report they felt unprepared for the role prior to taking it on. Taking time to become better educated on the disease process and how to meet one’s needs will decrease stress.
Begin by researching websites that support the chronic illness cared for, such as alz.org for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinsons Foundation for persons living with Parkinsons disease.
Caregivers Need Care Too:
Looking for a way to show a caregiver support? Trying to find the perfect gift for a caregiver? Caregivers need care too! Try these simple tips for showing a caregiver how much you care for them:
Mail Means You Matter:
In today’s electronically connected world, we have lost the value of the hand written note, or personally selected card. Greetings are often reduced to a few lines of text with an emoji. Recently I received a lovely card from my Pastor who knew I was experiencing “caregiver stress”. On the front was a lovely prayer for caregivers, and a note of encouragement inside. She had no idea just how much I needed that card and prayer on the day it was received! I have re-read that card at least a dozen times since. When our ability to socialize is decreased due to the demands of care giving, receiving cards and other mementos in the mail can definitely make a caregiver’s day!
Offer the Gift of Time:
There is never enough time in the caregiver’s day to do the things that need to be done for themselves or those they care for. In addition, rarely does a caregiver have “personal time” to do what they would like to do. Giving the gift of your time to allow the caregiver a few hours, a day, or however long possible to have time to themselves is a precious gift. You may also consider gifting respite care services, which can be purchased through most home care agencies.
Consider a Gift of Knowledge:
Books related to caregiving, stress relief, or the chronic illness being cared for, are great gifts for caregivers. You may even consider inviting the caregiver to attend a local educational conference with you. It is easier to do such activities when we have the support of someone we know with us.
Be a Friend
Call. Visit. Repeat.
Friendships can be difficult to maintain when someone takes on the role of a caregiver. The person you have always known to be your friend needs you more than ever now. It is difficult for them to come to you, but you can come to them. Bring a cup of their favorite coffee or grab a pastry and stop by often. Continue to be the life-long friends you have always been.