Why Caregivers Must Care for Themselves, Too

It may be the last thing on your mind, but you can manage it.

The numbers are astounding. More than 65 million people, or 29 percent of the U.S. population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend in any given year, according to the National Alliance for Caregiving. On average, caregivers spend 20 hours a week providing care for that loved one.

That’s a lot of care.

It is very possible, however, that we haven’t seen anything yet.

That’s because, in the Golden State, at least, a “senior tsunami” is coming. “By 2030, the number of Californians 65 and older is expected to pass 8 million, nearly double what it was in 2010,” said the San Jose Mercury News recently. A majority of care for that population will fall on family members.

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Caring for a loved one is fraught with personal booby traps that can cause a myriad of ailments, from anxiety to sleeplessness and depression, among many other serious health problems.

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Caregivers often wind up thinking that the ill person’s “needs are more important than yours, but over time you really do have to take care of yourself,” said Amy Goyer, an AARP family and caregiving expert in Phoenix, Arizona.

She likens the caregiving experience to driving a car on one tank of gasoline — and says it’s easy for caregivers to run low on gas as they rush to help their loved ones. However, “you will do better if you aren’t running on empty, if you keep filling up your tank and refill as you need to,” Goyer told LifeZette.

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Take that break when you need to. Leave the guilt on the doorstep.

That simple advice makes a lot of sense, but it’s very hard for caregivers to do. One of the best ways to get a handle on the overwhelming feelings is to ask for help and then let others help you.

“Accept help wherever you can find it.  The simple kindness of others can go a long way. Think broadly. There are respite workers, volunteers, neighbors, paid caregivers and area agencies. You are not alone.”

For example, when Goyer was taking care of her own mother, she was unable to get her mom to the hairdresser for a scheduled appointment. Rather than have her mom miss the appointment altogether, the hairdresser drove over and picked her up. “That was critical to my mom’s mental health. I couldn’t have done it without (that help),” said Goyer.

How can you tell if you are running on empty?

[lz_bulleted_list title=”Warning Signs of Caregiver Burnout” source=””]You want to drop everything.|You drink more often.|You are often sick.|You are unkind to your loved ones.|You avoid socializing.|You feel sad, helpless, tired.|You even wish your loved one would die.[/lz_bulleted_list]

Kira Reginato, an elder care manager in Petaluma, California, who is working on a book entitled, “Care for Yourself … or Else,” says one sign of exhaustion is wanting to run away from everything. Other signs of burnout include avoiding exercise and turning down get-togethers with friends.

“I just couldn’t handle those kinds of things when my husband was nearing the end of his life,” said one caregiver from Pennsylvania; she believed the care of her husband fell solely on her shoulders and couldn’t escape for a moment.

The AARP provides resources for caregivers, citing second-hand stress, or the more serious caregiver burnout as the despairing mix of physical and emotional exhaustion that strikes many caregivers at one time or another.

The emotional rollercoaster can certainly leave people feeling overwhelmed and angry. “You can’t eat or you eat too much. You’re exhausted even after a night’s sleep. Your brain is foggy and you no longer care about the things that used to bring you joy,” the AARP says.

Don’t berate yourself; that sort of behavior is all very common, according to Reginato. It means you need a break, so take one. If someone asks what they can do to help, be ready with a suggestion, such as getting groceries or running an errand.

Next, do something that brings balance back to your life. It could be as simple as going to a movie or walking the dog.

“Self-renewal doesn’t have to cost anything nor take a lot of time,” according to Reginato. You’ll come back ready to take on the job once again. The most important thing is to “give yourself permission to take breaks and make time for play and relaxation. “

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