Taking care of an aging or sick friend or relative can be rewarding — and stressful. Part of your task is to keep yourself sane, healthy, and loving.
Here’s our checklist to avoid burnout.
Tend to your own physical needs. That’s right — your needs! Caregivers often push themselves too far. In one survey, 36 percent of American caregivers reported health problems of their own and, among that group, more than a third said their own health had declined since they began giving care. Eat well, get enough sleep, keep your doctor’s appointments, and exercise.
Make time to connect with friends and family. Isolation can easily drag you down. Spending 36 hours or more a week tending a parent doubled the chance of anxiety and depression in a study of women caregivers over four years. Tending a disabled spouse was even more stressful.
Take breaks. If you’re home and on duty most of the time, see if friends, family, or volunteers can step in for a few hours. Take advantage of respite care services. Respite care provides a temporary break for caregivers, ranging from a few hours of in-home care to a short stay in a nursing home or assisted living facility. Adult day centers, which usually operate five days a week, are an option. If you want to try for a weekend or even a week, some assisted-living residences and nursing homes accept short-term residents. The key here is not to feel guilty, and allow yourself to fully relax. Your loved one won’t thrive if you’re resentful.
Spread the chores around. Are you a daughter knocking yourself out to help Mom while your brothers make the occasional phone call? Some 60 to 75 percent of caregivers are women. While daughters do all they can, one study found, sons still tend to pitch in only if there’s no spouse or sister available. Your family may have drifted into that pattern unnecessarily. Talk it over, and men may surprise you and step up. After all, according to an AARP study, some 14.5 million American men provide care.
To divvy up duties, first list all the tasks you’ve taken on or that need to be done. These could include check-in phone calls and visits, scheduling doctor appointments and tracking medications, or paying bills and handling taxes. Set up a meeting — perhaps online, to include faraway relatives — and go over the list. People may have other items to add. The goal is for your circle to agree on a division of tasks that each person feels able and willing to assume. The list will change, as your lives change and your elder’s situation evolves.
You’ll need to stay in touch and establish who will communicate with outside parties. Long-distance siblings may not realize all the ways they can help — making phone calls to contractors, handling finances or shopping online, or researching services.
Find resources. Eldercare is a growing issue as Americans age, and you’ll find lots of company and resources if you look. The Eldercare Locator is a government service to help caregivers find a variety of help – for example, programs that will help pay for prescription drugs. Contact your local area Agency of Aging or your local chapter of the AARP for services available in your area, such as adult daycare, caregiver support groups, and respite care. Longtermcare.gov will link you to services and help you evaluate costs. The nonprofit Family Caregiving Alliance also offers links to services and online support groups. The Well Spouse Association offers in-person support groups and “respite weekends” for caregivers to disabled spouses, who tend to be most stressed. Tell your story at the Caregiver Action Network or receive a referral to a volunteer, a current or former caregiver who can be your guide and support. To stay connected with extended family, you can transmit important news efficiently with a site like CaringBridge.
Get support at work. Caregiving typically can’t be kept entirely outside of work hours. The National Alliance for Caregiving and Center for Productive Aging has found that among employees helping elders, 81 percent made arrangements or checked in during the workday, 70 percent took days off, and 64 percent arrived late or left work early to give care.
A leave might help you establish a routine and develop a network of support. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, employees of public agencies and businesses with 50 or more workers are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year (without losing their health insurance).
But think carefully before you quit or retire. Women who leave the workplace early to care for a parent lose more than $324,000 in wages, pensions, and Social Security benefits, according to a 2011 estimate.
Male caregivers with jobs may feel especially pressured, notes Elinor Ginzler, senior director of the Center for Supportive Services at the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. “Many men are hesitant to let a boss know about their role as a caregiver, much less ask for help,” she says. They may rightly fear that a “request to take time off to care for Mom will be seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of commitment to the job.”
Learn to be your own advocate. As Ginzler puts it, “When Captain Kirk needed the Enterprise to go faster, he'd call down to Scotty, the engineer, who'd reply with something like, ‘We're already at 100 percent capacity. We can push the drive system to 102 or 103 percent, but it's not recommended!’”
February 22, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN