Approximately 43.5 million caregivers provide unpaid care to an adult or child in the United States, and according to Family Caregiver Alliance statistics, they spend an average of 22 hours a week doing it.
Caregiving is rewarding, but stressful
Caring for someone recovering from stroke, traumatic brain injury, aphasia, or living with dementia, can have many rewards. For most caregivers, being there when a loved one needs you is a core value. However, it can be time-consuming, and can bring with it feelings of frustration, exhaustion, loneliness or sadness. Caregiver stress — both emotional and physical — is very real and very common. The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person.
Recognize signs of caregiver stress
As a caregiver, you may be so focused on your loved one that you don't realize that your own health is suffering. Too much stress, especially over a long time, can harm your health. Watch for these signs of caregiver stress:
- Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
- Feeling tired often
- Not getting enough sleep
- Gaining or losing weight
- Becoming easily irritated or angry
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Frequent headaches, body aches, or other unusual physical problems
Strategies for dealing with caregiver stress
It's 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.
Over the last year, we’ve asked our Constant Therapy community of caregivers what works and what doesn’t work as they care for loved ones. Below is a list of best tips to stay healthy, sane and to connect with other caregivers.
1. Tips for taking care of yourself
- Accept help — Be prepared with a list of ways that others can help you, and don’t be afraid to ask. No one expects you to do it all yourself. For instance, a friend or family member may be able to take the person you care for on a walk or sit with them a couple of times a week. Or they may be able to run an errand, pick up your groceries or cook for you.
- Set personal health goals and monitor them — Set goals to establish a good sleep routine, to find time to be physically active, to eat a healthy diet and to drink plenty of water.
- See your doctor regularly — Get recommended vaccinations and screenings. Make sure to tell your doctor that you're a caregiver and don't hesitate to mention any concerns or symptoms you have.
- Be a little selfish — Reserve one day a week to take your loved one to an adult care center, or hire a home caregiver so you can meet friends, see a movie, take a class or do whatever nourishes your spirit. If your loved one balks at your plan, be firm. You deserve a break, so don't cave in to guilt. If you can’t manage that, carve out 10 minutes several times a day to meditate, listen to music or read a book or magazine. Or tape several episodes of your loved one's favorite TV show for them to watch while you grab a cup of coffee.
2. Advice for taking care of loved ones
- Research the illness or condition — Learn as much you can about your loved one’s disease or illness to know what to expect. If you learn more about their disease you’ll be more aware of the challenges that lie ahead and know which tools to draw on in different situations.
- Focus on what you are able to provide, not what you should — Believe that you are doing the best you can and making the best decisions you can at any given time. It's normal to feel guilty sometimes, but understand that no one is a "perfect" caregiver.
- Break tasks into smaller steps and set realistic goals — Prioritize, make lists and establish a daily routine. Say ‘no’ to requests that are draining, such as hosting holiday meals.
- Carry a list with you — Jot down everything you do each day and how long it usually takes, whether it's grocery shopping, taking the dog to the vet or finding someone to cover for you for 30 minutes so you can get out of the house. That way, the next time you bump into a neighbor or friend and they ask if you need anything, you can tell them exactly what they can do and when they can do it.
- Help your loved one look good (it can help them feel good, too) — Wash their hair, get them a haircut, or help them wear neat and well-fitting clothes and you may significantly improve how they feel about themselves.
- Let it go — Relax. It's not unusual for caregivers to insist on controlling every aspect of care, but that can actually discourage others from stepping up. People may not realize how much work and time is involved, or even that you want them to help.
3. Methods to connect with others in a similar caregiver situation
- Seek social support nearby — Make an effort to stay well-connected with family and friends who can offer nonjudgmental emotional support. Set aside time each week for connecting, even if it's just a walk with a friend
- Join a support group — Provide yourself validation and encouragement, as well as problem-solving strategies for difficult situations, by joining online or community-based support groups. Kindred spirits understand what you may be going through, and can help you feel less alone, give you a chance to vent, and let you listen to how others are handling similar situations.
4. Approaches for finding outside help
- Seek out respite care for your loved one — It may be hard to imagine leaving your loved one in someone else's care, but taking a break can sometimes be one of the best things you do for yourself and your loved one. Several kinds of respite care are available:
- In-home respite. Health care aides come to your home to provide companionship, nursing services or both.
- Adult care centers and programs. Local centers provide care for older adults offering daily activities, meals and outings.
- 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.
- Access readily available resources:
- Look for resources in your own town or city. Churches, synagogues and community service agencies often provide hotlines or round-the-clock service such as hot meal delivery, transportation, home health aides, housekeeping and adult respite day care. Many communities may also have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing.
- National or government organizations like AARP, the Family Caregiver Alliance or the U.S. Administration on Aging have online resources available, such as Eldercare.gov, to help find care.
- An elder law attorney can help you navigate the array of insurance or veteran benefits for which your loved one may be eligible, as well as state and federal programs that can help to cover the costs of expenses.