5 things caregivers need to know

Older couple walking on wooded path
Posted 24 November 2019 by Fallon Health

By Gerald Gleich, M.D.

When you step in to help someone you care about—whether they are chronically ill, have a disability or need supervision and support because of advancing dementia—it can feel good. You know you’re making a difference when you help them with household chores, drive them to appointments, ensure they get the medications and treatments they need, and even help fulfill their wish to live at home as independently as possible.

A full 95% of caregivers say the experience is worthwhile, according to a 2017 survey by The Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But in the same survey, more than 75% described caregiving as stressful or time consuming, and most likely the other 25% have had plenty of rough days, too.

The bottom line is that caregiving is difficult. Along with the good days and rewarding events, there will be plenty of challenges. Whether you’re a caregiver now or expect to be in the future, I want to share five things with you that can help as you go through the experience.

1. Caregiving is stressful. But you can learn to manage that stress.

Caregivers often fall into a cycle of depression and stress. More stress leads to more depression, which in turn reduces the ability to deal with stress. Paying attention to your own emotional health is crucial to being able to have the capacity to continue your work as a caregiver.

  • Making time for yourself is a great way to manage stress, and it’s essential for every caregiver. You need to have time off from your caregiver role to decompress and reenergize. Even short breaks, when someone takes over for 10–20 minutes, can give you the time and space to perhaps close your eyes and breathe deeply—or take a quick walk outside.

  • Practicing mindfulness is another way to manage stress. Being mindful means taking time to recognize and appreciate what is happening now. Mindfulness helps us “be in the moment” instead of always rushing and worrying about the next task.

2. Taking care of your physical health really is important.

Caregivers often put their personal health needs on the back burner to focus on caring for a loved one. Pay attention to your own health. Ignoring it and becoming sick yourself may make you unable to continue the work of caregiving.

  • Don’t skip medical appointments, medications or health screenings. They’re important for maintaining and improving your health.

  • Get regular exercise. Add more physical activity to your daily routine. Even small increases in activity boost your self-esteem, reduce your risks for getting a chronic disease and decrease your stress levels.

3. You’ll need help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to find it.

Your friends and family may offer help that isn’t helpful. Or they may not offer at all. Maybe they think you’ve got everything under control. Or they may not know how to help. Others may worry that you’ll ask them to do something they’re uncomfortable doing.

  • Ask for help. Start by asking for something small.

  • Be specific with your request. Let your friend know what you need help with, what’s involved and how much time it would take. Having the specifics makes it easier for you to ask—and easier for others to accept or counter offer.

  • Call your local Council on Aging or Elder Services Agency. They have extensive resources for—and experience with—caregiving.

  • Speak to your loved one’s health professionals. Let them know what your challenges are. They may have a solution or at least an idea that could make the situation easier.

4. Caregiving can affect relationships.

Friends can make themselves scarce when they think you are too stressed or busy. Family members may have different ideas about how to care for mom or dad, and old family roles and arguments can get in the way of working together.

Nurturing and maintaining friendships and family relationships may take effort, and if you’re the primary caregiver, you may have to be the one to take the lead.

  • Invite friends and family to get together. It could be for breakfast, a walk or just a visit at home. Ask them to bring the food. You won’t have to worry about it, and they will feel good about helping.

  • Let your friends and family know what’s going on, and remind them that you and your loved one want to stay in touch and that help is appreciated.

5. It’s easy to get so involved in caregiving that you feel isolated and alone.

Don’t push people away. Make an effort to socialize and get any help you need to stay connected to others.

  • Call your friends. Even if they’ve never been caregivers, they can provide important support for you and an opportunity for diversion and fun.

  • Connect with other caregivers. They’ll understand what you’re going through in a way that other don’t. If you don’t know any caregivers, join a support group in your community or online, or socialize at a Memory Café near you if your loved one is living with dementia.

  • Reach out to friends and family. They may have initially offered to support you. But have you taken them up on it? Don’t wait any longer. Call them.

  • Talk to a therapist. A therapist can help you manage the feelings and stresses of being a caregiver.

Remember that, to those on the outside looking in, your caregiving situation can appear to be different than it is. You may seem to be handling the situation well—so well that your family and friends think you don’t need them. They may be impressed that you’re “strong” enough to manage everything alone. Let them know about the challenges you and your loved one are facing, so they can help.

Gerald Gleich, M.D., was a geriatrician Medical Director for Fallon Health’s NaviCare program. He was also an Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at UMass Medical School and Medical Director at St. Mary Health Care Center in Worcester. This article was first published in the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce's Chamber Exchange newspaper.   

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