I helped care for my dad, who was dying of heart disease, for about 18 months. I was not even his primary caregiver. My mother and a home health aide took care of most if his-day-to-day needs. Yet, after he died, I was exhausted–worn out like I had never been before.
Caring for an aging parent can be among the most rewarding things you do in your life. But it can also be physical and emotionally demanding. Family members caring for relatives are more likely to be hospitalized than people like them who are not caregivers. They are more likely to suffer from depression and physical injuries (from, for example, lifting a loved one). Caregiving spouses over age 65 are even more likely to die prematurely than those who are not caregivers.
Those of us who give advice to familycaregivers always say two things: First, acknowledge that you are in fact a caregiver and that this role will be a burden. Second, take care of yourself: If you get sick, what will happen to the person you are caring for?
We give the advice. But few take it. They mean to, but something always gets in the way. “I was planning to take an hour to go to the gym, but I had to get mom to her doctor’s appointment.” Or, “I was just getting ready to go to the movies, but dad fell. He was fine, but I just couldn’t leave him”
Caregiving is different for each of us. Caring for someone at the very end of life can be vastly different than helping a loved one with dementia over many years. Older spouses caring for spouses, when each may be dealing with their own physical or cognitive limitations, face very different burdens than adult children caring for parents. Those children may have more physical strength, but they may also be juggling their caregiving with paid work and with their roles as parents and spouses.
There is no magic formula for how to be a good caregiver. However, the Family Caregiver Alliance has published a helpful online guide to ways caregivers can help themselves. Here are few suggestions: Some are FCAs and some are mine:
Set boundaries: Start by recognizing what you can, and cannot, do. Write it down. If you find yourself constantly overstepping those boundaries, you are headed for trouble. Rethink your role. Ask a sibling to take on more. If you or your parent have the financial resources, think about hiring a home health aide, or even moving mom to assisted living. I know, you promised you would never do that. But if she is no longer safe staying home alone, and you are burning yourself out by doing more than you can do, you will both end up worse off.
Communicate: Talk to the loved one you are helping about your caregiving role. You will be a team and like all teammates you will do a better job if you regularly communicate. These conversations are often hard, but they are important. Recognize that as your spouse or parent becomes more frail, your relationship will evolve, sometimes in unexpected ways. As it does, keep talking. And don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t think I can do that.”
Ask for help: With few exceptions, you are not alone. Really, you are not. Neighbors, other family members, fellow congregants in your faith community, and others may be more willing to help than you know. But you need to ask. A neighbor who can sit with mom for a few hours one day a week can make all the difference in the world.
Care for your own body and mind: Get exercise, even it is nothing more than a daily walk. Pray, or try yoga or Tai Chi—something to help relieve stress. If you are feeling depressed or overwhelmed, seek professional help, from a counselor, therapist, physician, or clergy. Don’t let it get out of control.
Consider respite care. Adult day programs can be a great help. They can provide mom with a break from what is often the loneliness of home. And for you it can be blessed respite. You know she’ll be somewhere safe for a few hours a day, and you can get a break.
I’ve seen what can happen when a caregiver does not care for herself. My mother-in-law tried to care for her husband alone, with no support. It worked until she dropped dead of a stroke. Don’t let that happen to you.
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