Lisa Milliken, MA, CCC-SLP, FNAP
“I am at my breaking point. I have not been able to figure out how to manage it all. I feel like I am losing my mind.”
This was one of many responses received when I recently asked caregivers to share their stressors, as well as how they may have learned to take care of themselves during the holidays. Another caregiver commented, “I recently had an EEG done of my brain and learned I am in the sympathetic flight or fight mode at all times. This is a result of very high stress, and it is very hard on my heart & brain.”
The accounts shared by caregivers are often heart breaking. Some offered strategies they have learned to deal with the overwhelming stress, while others were still desperately seeking for options.
Research tells us that caregivers often experience psychological distress, in addition to an increased risk of various health problems including cardiovascular problems, lower immunity, slower wound healing and higher levels of chronic conditions (such as diabetes, arthritis, ulcers, and anemia). In addition, caregivers often take more prescription medications, have poorer self-rated health, and are less engaged in preventative health behaviors such as exercise. They report an increased likelihood of smoking, drinking alcohol, and poor sleep patterns. They also will often experience feelings of social isolation and are overwhelmed by significant financial burdens.
While life’s stressors are very real in each of our lives, the additional burdens added to a caregiver’s life can be most destructive if not managed. We’ve all known caregivers who neglected their own health to focus on caring for a family member. Despite all recommendations from friends, these caregivers often experience a major decline in their own health, sometimes leading to premature death.
As professionals working with Elders, we have the opportunity to advocate for caregivers. These caregivers are often referred to as “the second patient.” It is critical that we understand and support the care for each caregiver. We can recognize the common symptoms of caregiver stress, which might include denial, anger, social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, sleeplessness, irritability, lack of concentration and health problems.
I’ve recently collected feedback from caregivers across the country who shared their own attempts to manage the overwhelming stress levels. Accounts were shared by daughters and daughter-in laws, grandsons, sisters and husbands. Each story was most unique. Some reported to have read many articles and have heard the well-meaning recommendations from friends. Yet they report such suggestions to often be unrealistic or applicable to their own situation.
So how can we help? What strategies should we encourage?
First, know that no two situations are alike. What was helpful for one person may not be an option for another. Consider the feedback gathered from multiple caregivers in real life situations:
- Focus on not taking the family member’s responses personally. “Think rationally, when they can no longer do so.” Remember these comments are triggered from their disease, pain, loss of control or anger toward their own loss. If they are insistent, redirect to another subject.
- Whenever you get a moment, do something you enjoy. Don’t constantly try to make everything perfect. “There will always be dishes to wash or floors to clean.”
- Purpose to find outside help, when at all possible. During the holidays, ask others to help with festivities. “Delegate, delegate, delegate!”
- Find some peace in knowing that you are fulfilling the responsibility you set out to do. “Along the way you also experience a great deal of growth as you learn new skills and meet challenges in ways you never imagined possible.”
- Meditation, prayer and relaxation techniques can be helpful. “I even found an app that reminds and helps me through meditations.”
- Keep a journal of activities to support your own health. “Jot down small attempts, even if it’s just a 10 minute walk or a 15 minute nap.”
- “The key to the holidays is to be realistic, not feel guilty over things you can’t control and just be present in the moment. Celebrate what you and your loved one share right now, even though it’s not what you would ultimately prefer. Try to let go of what was or what could be and make the most of what you still have. It really boils down to making choices. You only have a limited amount of time, energy and resources available. The question is: how are you and your loved one going to spend these? It’s a choice you get to choose.”
Finally, continue to recommend any local organizations who may offer a few hours of caregiving relief. Be a good listener when the caregiver needs to talk. Encourage them to not allow guilt for their own care, as maintaining one’s own health is needed to provide for others.
Caregivers are the unsung heroes, but they need our support and encouragement to continue their cause.