Overcoming the Overwhelming: Understanding and Coping with Caregiver Stress

 “There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.” ? Rosalyn Carter

A caregiver may be motivated to provide care for many reasons, by feelings of duty and responsibility as well as of guilt. Doty (1986) identified three factors underlying family caregiving motivations: love and affection, desire to reciprocate past help and societal norms If you know the selfless, rewarding life of caring for another person, then you also know how heavy things can get. That’s true whether you’re a family caregiver or a caregiver working with a patient. Sometimes, just a kind word of support can help us rise above caregiver burnout.

Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself
Caring for a loved one strains even the most resilient people. If you're a caregiver, take steps to preserve your own health and well-being.

As the population ages, more caregiving is being provided by people who aren't healthcare professionals. About 1 in 3 adults in India provides care to other adults as informal caregivers.

A caregiver is anyone who provides help to another person in need, such as an ill spouse or partner, a disabled child, or an aging relative. However, family members who are actively caring for an older adult often don't self-identify as a "caregiver." Recognizing this role can help caregivers receive the support they need.

Caregiving is rewarding but stressful
Caregiving can have many rewards. For most caregivers, being there when a loved one needs you is a core value and something you wish to provide.

But a shift in roles and emotions is almost certain. It is natural to feel angry, frustrated, exhausted, alone, or sad. Caregiver stress — the emotional and physical stress of caregiving — is common.

People who experience caregiver stress can be vulnerable to changes in their own health. 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

Signs of caregiver stress
As a caregiver, you may be so focused onther loved one that you don't realize that your own health and well-being are suffering. Watch for these signs of caregiver stress:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
  • Feeling tired often
  • Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Becoming easily irritated or angry
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Feeling sad
  • Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications

Too much stress, especially over a long time, can harm your health. As a caregiver, you're more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, you may not get enough sleep or physical activity, or eat a balanced diet — which increases your risk of medical problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Strategies for dealing with caregiver stress
The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person. That's why it's so important to take advantage of the many resources and tools available to help you provide care for your loved one. Remember, if you don't take care of yourself, you won't be able to care for anyone else.

To help manage caregiver stress:
Accept help. Be prepared with a list of ways that others can help you, and let the helper choose what he or she would like to do. For instance, a friend may offer to take the person you care for on a walk a couple of times a week. Or a friend or family member may be able to run an errand, pick up your groceries or cook for you.

Focus on what you are able to provide. It's normal to feel guilty sometimes, but understand that no one is a "perfect" caregiver. Believe that you are doing the best you can and making the best decisions you can at any given time.

Set realistic goals. Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time. Prioritize, make lists, and establish a daily routine. Begin to say no to requests that are draining, such as hosting holiday meals.

Get connected. Find out about caregiving resources in your community. Many communities have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing. Caregiving services such as transportation, meal delivery, or housekeeping may be available.

Join a support group. A support group can provide validation and encouragement, as well as problem-solving strategies for difficult situations. People in support groups understand what you may be going through. A support group can also be a good place to create meaningful friendships.

Seek social support. Make an effort to stay well-connected with family and friends who can offer non-judgmental emotional support. Set aside time each week for connecting, even if it's just a walk with a friend.

Set personal health goals. For example, set goals to establish a good sleep routine, find time to be physically active on most days of the week, eat a healthy diet, and drink plenty of water.

Many caregivers have issues with sleeping. Not getting quality sleep over a long period of time can cause health issues. If you have trouble getting a good night's sleep, talk to your doctor.

See your doctor. Get recommended vaccinations and screenings. Make sure to tell your doctor that you're a caregiver. Don't hesitate to mention any concerns or symptoms you have.

Respite care
It may be hard to imagine leaving your loved one in someone else's care, but taking a break can be one of the best things you do for yourself — as well as the person you're caring for. Most communities have some type of respite care available, such as:

In-home respite. Healthcare aides come to your home to provide companionship, nursing services, or both.

Adult care centers and programs. Some centers provide care for both older adults and young children, and the two groups may spend time together.

Short-term nursing homes. Some assisted living homes, memory care homes and nursing homes accept people needing care for short stays while caregivers are away.

The caregiver who works outside the home
Nearly 60% of caregivers work outside of the home. If you work outside the home and you're a caregiver, you may begin to feel overwhelmed. If you do, think about taking leave from your job for a period of time.

You aren't alone
If you're like many caregivers, you have a hard time asking for help. Unfortunately, this attitude can lead to feeling isolated, frustrated and even depressed.

Things to be done for Self-care

Taking Care of Your Physical Health
“Family caregivers spend an average of over 24 hours a week providing care — that’s more than an entire day you don’t have for yourself,” says Kotler-Klein.
This may lead to frequent fast-food trips, skipped workouts and less sleep. And even though it may be challenging to prioritize your own physical health, it’s critical to do so to avoid problems down the road, such as heart disease and bone loss.

Taking care of your physical health as a caregiver includes:

  • Eating healthy. You may want to plan meals ahead of time, cook nutritious meals for both you and your loved one, or keep some quick but healthy snacks on hand.
  • Avoiding stress eating. Even if it’s been a particularly hard day, resist the urge to try to feel better by eating junk food.
  • Staying active. Try taking mini exercise breaks throughout the day instead of all at once. If possible, find ways to be active with the person you’re caring for.
  • Getting enough sleep. Aim for at least seven to eight hours each night.
  • Try to go outside every day for at least 10 minutes in the morning or mid-afternoon. Sunlight and the outdoors are powerful tools in fighting depression.
  • Make time for the things you enjoy. Ask for help so that you can go to a movie, meet a friend or go shopping.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health
Caregivers often prioritize their loved ones, which can leave less time to do the things they enjoy. In fact, caregivers report that positive activities in their lives are reduced by nearly 30 percent as a result of their care-giving responsibilities.

“These responsibilities can leave you feeling overwhelmed, unhappy and isolated,” adds Kotler-Klein.

Fortunately, there are ways to lessen these negative effects of caregiving. Taking care of your mental health as a caregiver includes:

  • Finding time for yourself. Set aside time for yourself every day — even if it’s just 30 minutes — to read, exercise or talk with a friend.
  • Asking for help from family, friends and neighbors. Ask someone you trust to stop in while you take a walk or go to the gym.
  • Managing stressful moments. If you’re feeling frustrated, take a few deep breaths and know when to take a couple of minutes to yourself.
  • Getting support from others, such as family, friends and healthcare providers. Don’t let your negative feelings fester — address them right away to keep them from getting worse.
  • Learn to set boundaries.
  • Say no to non-essential demands on your time.
  • Find ways to make time for activities and people that are important to you. Get professional help if caregiving seems overwhelming.
  • Consider joining a support group for caregivers, as well. Other caregivers’ experiences may be similar to yours, and they may be able to provide you with some tips and support as you face some of the same challenges.

Find Ways to Help Your Loved One and Yourself
“Being a caregiver means you have extra responsibilities on your plate, but there are ways to make them more manageable,” explains Kotler-Klein. “For example, staying organized with a daily routine or to-do list can help you prioritize what needs to be done now and what can wait.”

don’t hesitate to ask for help, either. Talk to your loved one’s healthcare provider to learn ways to better and more efficient care for their needs. And if you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed, ask another family member or friend to help out every once in a while.

Also, if you’re financially able to, consider taking a break from your job. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires most employers to allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for eligible employees to care for a relative. Check with your insurance company and the patient’s insurance company to see if there are resources for caregiving, respite care or mental health services.

The person you are caring for deserves the best version of yourself — well-rested, renewed, and refreshed. They wouldn’t want you to ignore your own needs and end up physically or mentally exhausted. By noticing the signs of caregiver stress, you can stay happy and healthy while providing the care your loved one needs.

Caregiving is an essential role that requires a great deal of time, energy, and emotional investment. While caregiving can be challenging and stressful, it can also be deeply rewarding and fulfilling. It is important for caregivers to receive support to help them manage the demands of their role and maintain their own health and well-being. As a society, we must recognize and value the vital role that caregivers play and provide them with the support they need to continue providing care and support for their loved ones.

Dr. Nisha Vikraman

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