I was a caregiver for both of my parents during the last years of their lives. As much as you love someone and want to help, it’s a stressful job! This happens for several reasons and often creeps up on a caregiver slowly, until they are overwhelmed and unsure of how they got there.
What are three signs of caregiver stress?
- Feeling frequently worried or often feels overwhelmed.
- Constantly “on edge” or irritable.
- Physical problems, such as headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, fatigue or weight changes.
What Causes Caregiver Stress?
First off, when you love someone, you tend to throw yourself headlong into caring for them – or, at least that’s what I did.
In my case, my mother was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor at age 88, which left my then 93-year-old father as her primary caretaker. He had never cared for someone in his life because my parents were from the era when women did everything household-related. Dad had no idea how to cook, help Mom dress or bathe, or pay bills. So I dropped as much of my life as possible and took over.
The problem was, I was working full time and my parents lived an 80-mile round trip away – but I drove up to their house every day I was off work and often after work as well. I took care of as much as possible for them: I cooked meals that only needed to be reheated, paid bills, advocated with hospice and the home care aide they hired part time. I often got there early in the morning and left at bed time. There was no such thing as a weekend or a day off.
In the meantime, my husband stepped in as much as possible at home, but I still had duties there that he couldn’t help with.Which meant I had other “jobs” to do after I got home.
When you’re constantly running around and helping others, you have to give up something. Many times, that means neglecting your own health and sleep (because you keep mulling over what has to be done the next day). This results in a dramatic increase in stress – both emotionally and physically.
Caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical and spiritual health. The demands on a caregiver’s body, mind and emotions can easily seem overwhelming, leading to fatigue, hopelessness and ultimately burnout. –The Cleveland Clinic
The Mayo Clinic reports that “risk factors for caregiver stress include:
- Being female
- Having fewer years of formal education
- Living with the person you are caring for
- Social isolation
- Having depression
- Financial difficulties
- Higher number of hours spent caregiving
- Lack of coping skills and difficulty solving problems
- Lack of choice in being a caregiver”
And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, caregiver burnout symptoms shows up in the form of:
- Frequently worried or feeling overwhelmed
- Constantly “on edge” or irritable
- Physical problems, such as headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, fatigue or weight changes
- Reduced interest in doing things you used to enjoy
- You might also feel isolated or like you have been deserted and left to do everything on your own (which may be true)
How To Avoid Caregiver Burnout
While you can’t avoid all caregiver burnout symptoms, you can fend off, reduce or eliminate some of them by:
Asking for and accepting help: Be sure to ask for a specific form of help, though, instead of just hinting that you need it. Trust me, people either don’t pick up on the hint or your being vague will give them an out for ignoring the need. Instead of saying, “Geez, I’ve got a ton of things to do for Mom this week” and hoping your sibling will offer to take something off your plate, say, “Liz, can you take Mom to her doctor appointment this Tuesday at 11:00 a.m.?” And, if Liz declines, don’t let her off the hook – make another specific request.
Who do you ask for help? Family, friends, church members, the hospice social worker if your loved one is under hospice care, or resources such as adult daycare programs. If there is money available, consider hiring a part time home health aide to help with your loved one’s personal needs, such as toileting, dressing, bathing and so forth.
Being realistic: You can only do so much before it starts to impact your own health (or finances, or job – what have you). As much as you’d like to do the ten things Dad is asking you to do, pick the most important ones and let the others go. I promise the world will not stop spinning if you don’t accomplish everything on your “to-do” list.
Set aside time for yourself – every day: Have coffee with a friend (even virtually!), take an hour to read a book, treat yourself to a long, hot bath – whatever it takes to get your out of the hectic caregiving world and give you a moment or two of peace. But do this every, single day. You really do need a mental and physical break from caregiving.
Not neglecting your own health: Be sure to keep up with your own doctor appointments (especially when you are under such stress!). If you are taking medications, take them on time and consistently (and get them refilled!). Shop for healthy foods instead of fast foods. Take a walk to clear your head. Do yoga online or in a class. Use an exercise video or find one on YouTube.
Joining a support group: Sometimes, you just need to vent and be understood, right? Well, people in support groups understand what you are going through. To find one, do an online search for groups near you or join an online support group. Ask the hospice social worker for local groups.
Recommended Caregiver Books
These books can also give you helpful advice to make your caregiver role a little easier:
Caring For A Loved One With Dementia: A Mindfulness-Based Guide For Reducing Stress And Making the Best Of Your Journey Together by Marguerite Manteau-Rao LCSW and Kevin Barrows, MD
Put Your Mask On First: The Caregiver’s Guide To Self Care by Dr. Gary Bradt and Scott Silknitter
Take Back Your Life: A Caregiver’s Guide To Finding Freedom In The Midst Of Overwhelm by Loren M. Gelberg-Goff