By Dr. Jim Collins
As a gerontologist, Caring for the Caregiver has been one of my favorite topics to present, and for a couple reasons. First, there is an endless amount of information to discuss, from stress and burnout, to depression and weight gain, to seeking help, accepting limitations and finding peace within the caregiver role. The other, and probably more important reason, is because I was a caregiver to my mother for several years while she lived with me, my wife and daughter.
My mother, Mary, was a nursing assistant for almost 30 years in the same nursing home. When she retired in her late 70’s, she became bored and went back to work at an assisted living facility, where she worked until she retired at the age of 80! Prior to her retirement, she began to decline physically and mentally. There were plenty of signs of dementia, but when I brought it up to family members and friends, they replied “You think everyone has dementia!” While that is not true, she was becoming forgetful, leaving the stove on, burning pans, and hiding them in the trash. She also began to fall – numerous times, and miraculously, without much injury.
The care I provided, along with assistance from my wife and some family members began 15 years before she moved into an assisted living facility. Making sure she had proper nutrition was top on my list, as was taking her to all of her appointments, shopping trips and social visits. I helped her manage her finances and made sure she always had enough money to do anything she wanted. Keeping her safe while enjoying quality of life was important to me and I always tried to balance the two the best I could. She is now 91 and lives in a long-term care community.
What I Learned
Years of caregiving can be very fulfilling as well as take a toll on you, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and even spiritually. Typically, caregivers are the oldest adult daughters in the family, but in my family, I was most prepared to take care of my mother. Many years later, I’ve learned a few things about being a caregiver and want to share them with you. My hope is that these tips will help you help yourself, because you must first and foremost take care of yourself in order to provide care to anyone else.
Approach caregiving realistically. You can and will make a difference in the life of the person you care for, but know your limits. You simply cannot control everything, so don’t try. Diseases will progress, memory will decline and you must do what you can but not more than anyone is capable of doing. Nevertheless, do the best that you can and know in your heart you’re doing the right thing.
Monitor your own health and stress level. Listen to your body as it will always tell you the truth. Watch for headaches, stomach pain, and muscle strain. Be aware of your emotions. Are you experiencing sadness, anxiousness, are you over- or undereating, or has your sleep pattern changed? Any of these can be signs of stress, burnout or clinical depression or anxiety.
Take time out for yourself to rejuvenate. Everyone needs to take an occasional break from being a caregiver. Remember, give to yourself time to relax and return to your own hobbies and interests. Reach out to family and friends. Have a responsible person watch your loved one for a while so that you can get out, go shopping, see a movie, or go to dinner with a friend. By giving yourself a break, you will be relaxed and ready to get back to caregiving.
Never be afraid to ask for help. The old saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself” doesn’t fit the world of caregiving for long. No one can be a doctor, nurse, therapist, cook, housekeeper, and chauffeur all at the same time. We also don’t want to be a “burden” on anyone else, but we must approach caregiving not only livingly, but intelligently. Is there a good neighbor who can take care of a few things around the house for you? Can the grandkids get involved? Look into local health and social services for assistance. You will feel a lot better knowing you have help.
Accept change. As we age, many changes naturally take place biologically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Disorders and diseases come with their own unique changes. Learn to embrace change and accept it as a part of life. Nothing lasts forever, and everything is undergoing constant change. Accepting change will lighten your burden and you won’t feel like you’re fighting a losing battle.
If you are a caregiver, I hope that my words find their way into your mind and heart and help you serve your loved one the best way you can. Be proud. Not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver and that makes you a very special person.