The kind and loving commitment to being the primary caregiver for a loved one has rewards that are real and varied. At the same time, caregiver stress is, unfortunately, a part of life, especially when caring for someone with a chronic illness over an extended period of time.
In Australia, informal elder care is carried out overwhelmingly by women – mainly daughters and wives of the care recipient, in their peak working years of 35 to 54. A University of South Australia study found, 84.9% of working women will be caring for, or organising care for a loved one. Some will leave the workforce as care needs increase. The following article was written and published by the National Parkinson Foundation in US. It provides some practical advice for caregivers to help manage the stress and strain that can be associated with the generous act of caregiving.
To address caregiver fatigue, you and the people in your support network must be able to recognise the warning signs:
An ongoing tendency to ignore or postpone taking care of your own health needs
- Growing feelings of isolation, expressed by, “Nobody knows or understands what is really going on with us.”
- Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about the future
- Feelings of profound tiredness and exhaustion not relieved by sleep
- Emotional strain/stress, often manifesting as varying physical symptoms
- An inability to concentrate or make decisions
What Can I Do to Feel Better? We have all heard the advice on an airplane, “Put on your own oxygen mask first.” The same holds true for caregivers. By placing your own physical, medical and emotional needs on equal par with the person needing care, you may help prevent excessive stress, caregiver burnout and depression. First and foremost, you must recognise your own feelings. Be honest with yourself and others about your needs and what you think might help.
Speak up. Feelings of isolation can be alleviated by meeting with people who are in your situation and can understand your experiences. You aren’t alone. Getting help in the home when needed can help you manage and give you a little bit of rest. If you think that friends have stopped coming to visit or that family members are not supportive in the ways you need, have the courage to speak up. They may not realise how you feel.
Accept help. Harbouring resentment when you need more help can increase stress and lead to burnout. Make a short list of specific tasks that would help you take better care of your loved one and get some much-needed support. For example, could another family member or friend come every other Tuesday and provide you with a break? If you do not feel comfortable asking directly for help, you will have the list ready when concerned friends and family members ask what they can do. Be honest simple things like collecting medications or groceries can help.
Manage your stress. Identify stress triggers along with ways to help control your emotions. Try writing in a journal or going for a walk when tension reaches a breaking point. If the stress triggers are unavoidable, you need reliable ways to reduce and manage them. No method is too silly if it works! Make a coping skills checklist. For example:
Take 10 deep breaths
- Call a friend
- Get a massage
- Watch your favorite TV show
- Tend the garden
- Add as many tools as you like or need, and keep the list handy so you can turn to it whenever the tension starts to build.
Get professional help if you need it. Do not feel embarrassed to seek professional help or counseling. A social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist can help you pinpoint the causes of your distress and provide constructive ways to cope with the situation.
Be open with family and friends. Call a meeting with key family members and friends to candidly discuss what’s happening with you and the person you are caring for. If geography is an obstacle, use technology to bridge distances. Try free video conferencing services to hold family meetings at times that work for everyone. It is important for you to share your feelings and for family and friends to understand the situation from your point of view.
Simple questions to help understand your stress
Answer the following questions “yes” or “no”:
- Do you get six hours of uninterrupted sleep most nights?
- Have you set aside a period of time alone every day?
- Is there someone you could/would phone if a problem arose any time day or night?
- Does at least one other person fully understand the day-to-day trials you experience?
- Do you take regular planned breaks and mini-holidays away from caregiving responsibilities?
- The answer to all the questions above should be “yes.” If you answered “no” to any questions, it may be time to try and find extra support.
Your Caregiving Action Plan
Small steps can make a big difference. Answer these questions truthfully.
One small change I can make today that is just for me:
Two steps I will take in the next month to simplify my schedule or add joy to my life: