Caring for the Caregiver: Using Lessons Learned from Caring for Others to Take Better Care of You

April 7, 2014 | Found In:  Caregiver Tips

Old-and-Young-hands_quote“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.”—Rosalyn Carter

There are currently over 75 million family caregivers who provide home care for a loved one. By the year 2050, there will be over one million centenarians – individuals over the age of 100 – living in the North America alone, rendering Rosalyn Carter’s words, quoted above, all the more powerful. Family caregivers fill a vital role in the health and quality of life of their loved ones. They are often the most familiar with the care recipients’ medicine regimen; they typically are extremely knowledgeable about the treatment regimens; and they usually intimately understand the recommended dietary and exercise plans. However, family caregivers also have extremely high burnout rates, with stress-related physical and emotional impacts. In fact, around 55% of family caregivers exhibit depressive symptoms. So, what is the approaching-burnout-caregiver to do?

My good friend, Emily, who is caring for her 82-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s, has enlisted the help of a local in-home care agency for the first time in her three-year journey as a family caregiver. She described at first feeling a sense of guilt for “bringing in an outsider,” but such doubts soon dissipated and were instead replaced with a profound gratitude for the freedom that eliciting additional help provided. Though my friend read copious pages of Alzheimer’s disease caregiving how-to books, tirelessly scoured the internet for up-to-date resources and was curious and informed when meeting with physicians (all while wearing her other hats of mother, wife, friend and business woman, I might add!), she reached a point around the holidays where, as she described:

“I realized I felt…more like a firewoman than a daughter, caregiver, wife, mother, entrepreneur—I was constantly putting out ‘fires’ caused by spreading myself too thin…rescheduling missed appointments, playing a never-ending game of catch-up at work, not being engaged in one task I was doing at any given time…”

Emily started by bringing on a caregiver just four hours a week; at the urging of the care manger at the in-home care agency that provides her mother’s care, Home Care Assistance, Emily took this time to be her “me” time—time to leave the home and do the errands, activities, social meet-ups that she had described feeling too overwhelmed and guilty to justify doing prior to bringing on additional care. She slowly increased the hours of professional care to where she felt comfortable in resuming many of the activities so important to her own quality of life (e.g., exercising, book club) that she had forsaken over the past three years. Not only did she notice a difference in how she felt, but she noticed a difference in her mother as well.

“I felt like I was a daughter again, and I think on some level Mom feels that now too. When I would be around her frazzled and stressed [before bringing in professional help], in retrospect, I think she sensed that. She would get more agitated, more sad.”

Emily described a common phenomenon that family caregivers describe: when she was more positive and happy, her dynamic with her mother was better too. She was more patient and compassionate and this translated to more smooth and enjoyable interactions. But it was what happened next that Emily found the most surprising. She started taking some of the very principles that she saw the caregivers working with her mother utilizing—promoting exercise, planning a diet rich in “superfoods” and nutrients, cultivating a sense of purpose and calm—and incorporating them in her own life. Further, whenever she would read something about providing good, loving care to an ailing family member or learn about tips to help improve her mother’s functioning and quality of life (e.g., sleep hygiene skills, music therapy) she would find ways to ensure that she was taking the same high caliber care of herself. Emily’s story is not unique. Sometimes simply taking the time to do for you the very things that you do for your loved one can make a world of difference.

It is a paradox too common in family caregivers that though they are aware that they are fatigued, burned out, unmotivated and overwhelmed, they feel guilty in taking the time to ensure that their own needs are being met. I once heard a woman at a family caregiver support group describe that she was on plane about to take off, listening to the same safety instructions that she had heard hundreds of times prior, but for some reason something stuck with her: “Place the oxygen mask on your own face first before helping others.” This resonated with her because it was a metaphor for her own relationship with her chronically ill husband for whom she was providing care—she needed to make sure that she was healthy and taken care of first in order to ensure that she could take the very best care of her loved one.

Are you or do you know a family caregiver who has learned important lessons on his or her care journey? Share your experiences and thoughts about what has helped you thrive in your role.


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