Judy finally found the time to meet with a few friends for coffee. She apologized for falling off the radar, but her family had needed her. She is caring for her mother and father, who live on opposite sides of town and have different health issues, which means different doctors' appointments and pharmacies. She is cooking for them, handling their finances, running their errands, doing their laundry and cleaning both their houses. Meanwhile, her husband is having health issues, and her two sons need her help to get ready for college. She also is teaching music classes for some needed extra income. And the holidays are coming, and she is hosting the family for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
One of her friends mentioned that Judy needed to find time to take care of herself. Everyone was surprised, including Judy, when she burst into tears. "That's easy to say for someone who doesn't have to do it," she said almost angrily. She went on about how she is the responsible one. If she doesn't take care of her parents, their health will suffer; they wouldn't eat and they would never leave their apartments. They need her. Besides, her parents would never accept anyone else helping them.
Besides, Judy added, it's not that bad. She can handle it. Other people have much worse troubles to deal with. At least she doesn't have cancer.
Someone definitely needs help in Judy's family: Judy. Like most caregivers, she values being able to help and provide care for her parents, but she is forgetting about her needs, placing them last, if she pays any attention to them at all. Caregivers are champion multi-taskers and do all they can for their loved ones. The majority of caregivers (72 percent) do everything with no outside help, according to a national survey by Home Instead Senior Care. Caregivers may feel there is no one to ask for help or that their loved ones will accept help only from them. They also may feel that if they ask for assistance with their caregiving duties, they are, in effect, admitting failure.
Truly effective caregiving starts with taking care of yourself and knowing your limits. That means eating right, getting adequate rest, building exercise into your schedule, keeping up with your own medical appointments and accepting help.
The Home Instead Senior Care Advisory Board offers a few tips for managing caregiver stress:
- Meditate - Sit still and breathe deeply, while keeping your mind as "quiet" as possible. You may not feel like you have a minute to yourself, but you'll feel the difference immediately.
- Eat well - Grab some fresh fruit or vegetables. Proteins, including nuts and beans, and whole grains can help you keep up your energy and your focus. Indulging in caffeine, fast food and sugar as quick "pick-me-ups" also produces a quick "let-down."
- Take care of yourself - Just as you make sure your loved one gets to the doctor regularly, make sure you get your annual check-up.
- Indulge - Treat yourself to a foot massage, manicure, nice dinner out or a concert for a reward. You shouldn't feel guilty about wanting to feel good.
- Support - Find a local caregiver support group that will help you understand what you are experiencing is normal for someone in your position.
To avoid burnout and stress, caregivers can enlist the help of other family members and friends or consider hiring a professional non-medical caregiver for assistance. Keep track of your daily activities then make a list of the areas and times when you most need help. Be specific. Could you or your care recipient use a ride to an appointment? Does a hot meal that you don't have to cook sound good? Sometimes people want to help, but have no idea how, or they also may worry that they will do something wrong. Giving them a chance to "shadow" you for an afternoon can alleviate their fears. Sometimes, if your loved one will not accept help from anyone but you, she will be delighted to have a visitor sit with her and chat while you run errands.
Area agencies on aging (1-866-243-5678) have respite and caregiver support programs to help.
It may sound selfish. It may sound impossible to find the time, but a caregiver who takes care of herself or himself - body and mind - will ultimately be a better caregiver to a loved one. There is a reason airplane instructions tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before trying to help anyone else. You can only help someone else if you help yourself first.
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