Caregivers – take care

Taking on the care of a frail family member or an ailing spouse is a great act of love, but that doesn’t make it easy. On the contrary, it can be emotionally draining, physically exhausting and often overwhelming.

If you’ve taken on this role, you are surely all too familiar with one of its toughest challenges: how do you find time to take care of yourself when you are devoting all of your energy to taking care of someone else?

In the daily blur of priorities, self-care tends to land pretty low on the list. However, if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll soon be unfit to effectively take care of someone else. There’s a reason why flight attendants insist that you put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others.

The following self-care tips – many gleaned from other caregivers – will empower you to provide the best possible support to the person under your care.

First, acknowledge that it’s difficult, and give yourself a break. Being a caregiver means managing another person’s health and life in addition to your own. That’s more than most people can handle on their own, so take it easy on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for not doing more or not doing things perfectly. Be realistic about how much you can do, and give yourself credit for what you’ve done.

Don’t take on more than you need to. Provide care that is essential, but don’t take over. Your new roles as “caregiver” and “patient” should be collaborative. Ask for input from the person you’re caring for. Encourage this person to continue to perform the tasks that he or she is still up to – it will lessen the burden on you while enabling your loved one to maintain a sense of dignity, self-sufficiency and control over his or her own life.

Ask for help, and be specific. There is no shame in asking for – and accepting – help. Friends and family members often want to help, but don’t know how. Keep a list of tasks you wish you had help with – whether it’s providing meals, mowing the lawn, offering lifts to doctors’ appointments, or just taking your place for an hour so you can take a break. When people offer to help, sign them up. If no one is offering, start asking. Reach out to your friends, family members, neighbors, community groups and faith groups, and ask your doctor to point you toward community resources that can help. People often find that there is more help available than they realized.

Establish boundaries. People with good intentions don’t always recognize when their “help” is actually adding to your stress load. One caregiver who had friends sign up to provide meals found that each delivery entailed several minutes of chit chat – precious minutes that she did not have to spare. Her solution was to place a cooler on the front porch for food deliveries, with a kind note expressing her gratitude for the meal and for understanding her need for quiet time with her husband.

Designate a point person. Many people call with the same questions, and it can be exhausting and time consuming to respond to them all. Designate a point person who can email regular updates to everyone, answer questions, and schedule helpers for specific tasks.

Join a support group. You may think you don’t have time for a support group, but the understanding you’ll receive, the helpful resources you’ll learn about, and the creative solutions that other caregivers will share with you will make it time well spent. Many people find that the support they receive in these groups makes them feel less alone and more fortified to face the challenges of the day. Visit our website for caregiver support groups in the Portland area, or ask your doctor to refer you to a group nearby.

Take breaks to rejuvenate. Every moment you can take for yourself will benefit the person you are caring for, too, by making you a more relaxed and pleasant person to be with. Don’t wait for time to open up for you – it won’t. Schedule regular breaks that you can look forward to. Have a friend or family member relieve you for a couple of hours a week so you can spend time alone doing something you enjoy. Or, have two friends come over – one to sit with the person you are caring for, and one to take you out for lunch, for a walk or to a movie. If no one is available to relieve you, look into local organizations such as Providence ElderPlace that offer adult day services and respite care.

Eat right and exercise. This may sound impossible with everything else on your plate. But then again, how long do you want to be able to keep up what you’re doing? Finding time to eat right and exercise will help you relieve stress, keep your emotions on an even keel, and maintain your energy for all the demands that are placed on you. Ask your friends and family members to help you make and keep a commitment to eating right and getting 30 minutes of physical activity at least every other day. Offering you respite from your responsibilities is a great way they can help you work in a walk. Let them know that food deliveries of fresh fruits and ready-to-toss salads, nutritious soups, precooked lean proteins, whole grains and legumes will do you a lot more good than heavy, high-calorie “comfort” foods and sweets.

Recognize when you are approaching burnout. Signs of stress overload include a clenched jaw, digestive upsets, sleep problems, elevated blood pressure, tension, feeling like you are constantly in a hurry or becoming less efficient, finding fault in everything, irritability, anger, guilt, escapism, a loss of humor or self-esteem, and loneliness. If you are experiencing several of these symptoms, step back, reassess your self-care and call in the reinforcements.

Remember who it is that you’re caring for. You had an important relationship with this person before he or she became your “patient.” Make an effort to honor your original roles while accepting that they are evolving. Accept that the person’s behavior may change, and that those changes are about the situation, not you. Take time to walk down memory lane. Ask the person you are caring for about childhood experiences, first loves, biggest life challenges and happiest moments, and document his or her stories. Listen to music together. Watch funny movies. Enjoy each other’s company.

These suggestions were provided by Providence Hospice Community Care, which offers free educational workshops and seminars to community groups, civic organizations and others who want to learn how to support a friend or loved one facing a serious illness or loss.