Providing daily care for an elder spouse, parent or family member can be a richly rewarding experience. But make no mistake: it is also one of the greatest demands you may face in a lifetime.
Caregiving is becoming a full-time job for more and more of us as the U.S. population ages. Many who provide care for loved ones have no special training. Studies show that 1 in 3 Americans acts as an “informal” caregiver – and as elder therapists know all too well, these individuals often suffer from severe stress as a result.
The challenge of caring for elders
Caregivers say that being there when a loved one needs them is simply part of their core values. They assume their duties naturally and do everything possible to assure the well-being of their loved one.
Still, caregiving means taking on a new role that may feel unnatural at first. For example, if you’re caring for an aging parent, you may struggle to take the reins from someone you always viewed as an authority figure. Spouses who provide care may also feel the strain as the balance of power within their relationship shifts.
Caregivers are often surprised to find that they frequently feel angry, frustrated, exhausted, alone or sad. Caregiver stress – the emotional and physical strain of caregiving – is a problem that nearly all face at one time or another.
Are you showing signs of caregiver stress?
As the caregiver for an elder loved one, you may be so focused on your duties that you overlook your own needs. How many of these stress signals do you see in our own life?
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Feeling tired often
- 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
- Feeling sad or discouraged
- Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
- Relying on alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications, to ease stress
If one or more of these warning signs is present, your own health may be suffering right now. Caregivers often face elevated risks for depression, heart disease, diabetes and other medical problems. It’s important to take steps to reduce the pressures you feel –for your own good and the well-being of your loved one, too.
Strategies for dealing with elder caregiving stress
These helpful tips from the Mayo Clinic can help you create a plan to nurture yourself.
Let others help. Be prepared with a list of ways that friends, family and neighbors can support you. Let helper choose what they would like to do. For example, a friend may offer to take your loved one on a walk a few times each week. Or a friend may run errands, pick up groceries or cook for you.
Be gentle with yourself. It’s normal to feel guilty sometimes, but understand that no one is a “perfect” caregiver. Trust that you are doing the best you can — and making the best decisions possible any given time.
Set realistic goals. Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time. Prioritize, make lists and establish a daily routine. Feel free to say “no” to unusual demands such as hosting holiday meals.
Reach out locally. Find out about caregiving resources in your community. Many areas have classes focused on specific medical conditions or life situations that can help you put things in perspective. Caregiving services such as transportation, meal delivery or housekeeping can be a lifesaver.
Join a support group. A support group can provide validation, encouragement and problem-solving strategies for difficult situations. People in support groups understand what you may be going through. A support group can also be a good place to create meaningful friendships.
Rely on close relationships. Stay in touch with family and friends who can offer nonjudgmental support. Set aside time each week for connecting, even if it’s just a walk with a friend.
Safeguard your own health. Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water and find ways to be physically active on most days. Sleep is a top priority, since not getting enough rest over long periods can harm your health. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor.
Don’t skip your medical checkup. Get recommended vaccinations and screenings. Make sure to tell your doctor that you’re a caregiver. Don’t hesitate to mention any concerns or symptoms you have.
Remember: you don’t have to go it alone
As a therapist working with elders and their loved ones in Oak Park, I am here for you. Caregiving is a both a privilege and a challenge – and having the support of a professional counselor can be a great source of strength and perspective. Reach out to me anytime to schedule a private appointment for yourself or someone you care about.