Managing the Stress: Tips for the Caregiver
Isabel, 56, took care of her father during an illness and her mother after an injury. “The first thing I did when I realized the enormity of what I was faced with—that I would be on call 24 hours a day—was to cut my hair,” says Isabel. “Very, very short. It helped me focus. I think it was emblematic of my mental state, but it also helped me physically as it was one less thing to be concerned about. Though it may seem obvious, there is no way to prepare for the events that happen to your parents. When they happen, you have to react. Taking care of yourself isn’t something you think about at the time.”
Adapted from Caring for Your Parents
One in five caregivers says the greatest challenge is the demand on personal time and lifestyle. Other key reasons for caregiver stress include inadequate training, financial concerns, and the frustration of dealing with the health care and social service systems. To make matters worse, many caregivers don’t take advantage of community services that could help reduce their stress. Some say they are too busy to use them, while others don’t even know they are available or can’t afford them.
Today, we know stress is not just unpleasant; it can negatively affect our health, well-being, and ability to provide care. Stress appears to increase the risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, and intensifies problems such as asthma and insomnia. In extreme cases it may lead to inadequate care and even the verbal or physical abuse of an older parent.
What You Can Do When you are caring for others, taking care of yourself and your needs is like performing regular maintenance on your car. It’s critical to stay in mental and physical shape. Here are some ways you might nurture yourself to cope with stress and improve your well-being:
- Take care of your body. Eat nutritious meals. Don’t give in to stress-driven urges for sweets or overindulge with alcohol. Get enough sleep. If you wake at night, try napping during the day. Get regular medical checkups. Exercise, even if it means finding someone else to provide care while you walk or go to the gym. If you experience symptoms of depression—extreme sadness, trouble concentrating, apathy, hopelessness, thoughts about death—it could be an illness requiring treatment. See a doctor right away.
- Be social. This may take advance planning, but it’s worth it. Isolation increases stress, while having frequent good times with others will balance your emotions.
- Ask friends and relatives for help. Make a list of tasks you need help with and ask friends and relatives if they could contribute. Those who live far away can still provide plenty of support.
- Reach out to community services. Consider a geriatric care manager to coordinate all aspects of your parents’ needs. Home health aides, shopping helpers, homemakers, and someone to handle home repairs are people who can shoulder some of the many distractions of caregiving. Volunteers and/or staff from faith-based organizations or civic groups might visit, cook, or help you with driving.
- Take a break. You deserve it. Don’t feel guilty, either. Remember that your parents may also benefit from having someone else around. Think about respite care by friends, relatives, or volunteers. Or perhaps try for a weekend or longer vacation by using home health agencies, nursing homes, assisted living residences, and care homes, which sometimes accept a short-term resident, space permitting. Adult day centers, which usually operate five days a week, provide care in a group setting to older people who need supervision.
- Let it out. If you bottle up emotions, you might harm your immune system and get sick. Talk with friends and family about the challenges and rewards of caregiving. Open up to coworkers in similar situations. Prayer is the most common way caregivers cope. See a professional counselor or join a caregiver support group.
- Redirect your mind. Do something you enjoy like reading, walking, or listening to music. Some people meditate or use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualizing a positive place.
- Organize. A good plan will give you more time for yourself. Set priorities and realistic goals. List your caregiving priorities, and get the important ones done first. Pace yourself.
- Ditch negative feelings. Make it a point to focus on the positive. Hold a family meeting to resolve conflicts with siblings and other relatives. Feel positive about your accomplishments as a caregiver instead of dwelling on any perceived shortcomings.
Some of this material appears in slightly different form in Caring For Your Parents: The Complete AARP Guide.
© 2003, 2004, 2007 AARP. Reprinting by permission only.