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Nancy Wurtzel

She writes about midlife changes.

How to care for yourself when you're the caregiver

Many caregivers fall into the trap of believing they have to do everything by themselves. This can be a recipe for disaster. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care-give for someone else.

Two-thirds of caregivers work outside of the home. Juggling work responsibilities and caregiving can be an overwhelming experience. If you’re in this situation, try these ideas for balancing your work and personal caregiving responsibilities:

- Learn to delegate.

- Share your work responsibilities with co-workers.

- Ask your company’s human resources department about resources, such as support lines or referral services. Then make use of these assistance programs.

- Talk with others. Keep an open line of communication with your supervisor and co-workers.

- Enlist the doctor’s help. Ask your loved one’s doctor to send a letter to your company explaining the seriousness of your loved one’s condition.

Even if you don’t have a job in addition to your caregiving duties, you do have a life. That life may include a spouse, children, grandchildren and others. How to you juggle the caregiver duties and still have lead your own life? Here are some tips for caregivers:

- Avoid guilt. Feeling guilty is normal, but understand that no one is a “perfect” caregiver. You’re doing the best you can at any given time. Your house does not have to be perfect. No one will care if you eat leftovers three days in a row. And you don’t have to feel guilty about asking for help.

- Accept help. Make a list of ways people can help you, and then let the helpers choose what he or she would like to do. For instance, a relative might be happy to take the person you care for a walk. Someone else may be willing to pick up groceries and run errands.

- Reach out. Organizataions such as the Red Cross and the Alzheimer’s Association offer classes on caregiving. Local hospitals may have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing.

- Join a support group. A support group can be a great source of encouragement and advice from others in similar situations. It can also be a good place to make new friends.

- Stay Connected. Make an effort to stay in touch with family and friends. Set aside time each week for socializing, even if it’s just a walk with a friend. Whenever possible, make plans that get you out of the house.

- Commit to your own good health. Find time to be physically active on most days of the week, and don’t neglect your need for a good night’s sleep. It’s also crucial to eat a healthy diet.

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

Additionally, look for Local Caregiver Resources for Support. If you’re like many caregivers, asking for help is not always easy. But rather than struggling on your own, take advantage of local resources. To get started, contact your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) to learn about services in your community. You can find your local AAA online or in the government section of your telephone directory or search online.

Reach out to your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter. 

The emotional and physical demands of caregiving can strain even the most capable person. That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of every available support.

Caring for an aging relative? Here are 7 signs of caregiver burnout and stress

Mary assists her aging mother two evenings a week and almost all day on Saturday. Her mother, who will soon turn 85, needs help with a growing list of tasks, including shopping for groceries, paying bills, doing laundry, going to the pharmacy and preparing meals.

During a recent conversation with Mary, I called her a wonderful caregiver. To my surprise, she balked at using the term "caregiver," instead insisting that she was just "helping out Mom."

Mary may not want to take on the title of caregiver, but she is indeed fulfilling that role. In fact, more than 65 million Americans provide unpaid care to someone in need. The person in need might be a spouse or partner, parents, children, grandchildren, other relatives, friends, neighbors and even co-workers.

About 15 million (of that 65 million) are providing unpaid care for someone with Alzheimer's or another form of memory loss.

Caregiving for Aging Parents is Stressful

From my own experience, I know caregiving can be a rewarding experience. On the flip side, it can also exact a high toll on the person juggling his or her own life as well as the life of another person.

Stress among caregivers is common. Sometimes the stress is so incredibly high that the caregiver's health is also jeopardized.

Warning Signs of Caregiver Stress

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

  • Feeling worn out or exhausted 
  • Experiencing feelings of being totally overwhelmed
  • Feeling irritable and angry
  • Thinking negative thoughts, often on a continual loop
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Gaining or losing a significant amount of weight
  • Showing little interest in activities you used to enjoy

Take a good look at this list and see if some or all apply to you.  If they do, then you may be in danger of burnout.

Handling Caregiving Stress

When I was caring for my mother, who was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, I began having persistent abdominal discomfort and an aching pain. After a week or so, I also experienced a heaviness in my chest and my breathing felt labored.

The symptoms finally became so intense that I ended up in the emergency room. Thankfully, a battery of tests didn't reveal any significant medical problems, which was good news.

The doctor's diagnosis? Stress.

Looking back, I can clearly see I was severely depressed, anxious, as well as stressed. I had reached the point of burnout. These feelings had taken their toll and had a negative physical impact on my own health. It's difficult to see it in the midst of the caregiver duties, but it can happen.

As a caregiver, you must protect your own health and wellbeing. In my next post, I'll give some ideas on how to do just that.

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