Written by Laurie Weber with input from Wes Vaughn
Every November, National Family Caregivers Month (NFCM) is a time to recognize the role of family caregivers. Also known as unpaid caregivers, their roles and contributions are vital to our aging society and deserve to be supported at each step in their caregiving journey.
Caregivers can be minors, parents, relatives, friends, partners, or have another type of relationship with a person with a disability or a health condition. According to AARP, over 53 million Americans are unpaid caregivers to family, friends, and neighbors. Twenty-seven percent or nearly a third of unpaid caregivers are helping someone with a mental illness.
“There are only four kinds of people in the world. Those who have been caregivers. Those who are currently caregivers. Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.” — Rosalyn Carter
Did you know?
- Women carry the burden: Over half of family caregivers are women.
- The rest of the family suffers: One out of every four caregivers reports diminished family relationships because of caregiving for a loved one.
- They’re exhausted: Most caregivers work part- or full-time outside the home in addition to their caregiving responsibilities.
- One million caregivers are kids: Over a million American young people aged eight to 18 care for an adult.
- Health declines: Nearly 70 percent of caregivers report they don’t see their doctor regularly because of their responsibilities.
Some of the Challenges Caregivers Face
The challenges caregivers face can be overwhelming. Caregivers often have less time for activities like chores, spending time with family and friends, hobbies, or running errands. Those working full-time or part-time may have difficulty maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
And while the actor says he wouldn’t trade a minute of the time he spent helping her, being a caregiver made him realize how much support the role lacks.
Here are a few steps caregivers can take to help during the good and not-so-good times.
Caregivers often sacrifice their own time to care for their loved ones, even if it means a lesser quality of life for themselves. If you’re a caregiver, it’s essential to understand how to provide care without sacrificing your mental and physical health. Sharpening your time management skills may help.
One time management tactic is keeping a daily diary. For one week, jot down how long it takes to complete your daily caregiving tasks and any periods of inactivity. By recording your time, you may see gaps in your schedule that allow you to fit in other activities.
According to a 2017 Embracing Carers survey, 54% of unpaid caregivers don’t have time to book or attend their own medical appointments, while 58% find it challenging to sleep regularly.
Lack of Privacy
As a caregiver, being nearby your patient or family member is a necessity. For some, it means living with a loved one. In that case, finding time alone for an extended period may be difficult.
A general lack of privacy has led some caregivers to feel depressed and lonely. Although challenging, you may need to set emotional and physical boundaries. Understand that you are not alone. Organizations and groups are available for caregivers seeking support, including the Council on Aging of Central Oregon, which can serve as a resource for finding caregiving support groups in your community.
Participating in social groups can offer support, feedback, and encouragement, such as Facebook groups and others like the Alzheimer’s association.
Caring for someone else can take away time from relationships with others just as much as it can take away time from oneself. Dates, hobbies, and other activities with friends and family may take a lot of work to arrange but are well worth the effort.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to your support network to take a task or two off your hands. You’re no less of a caregiver because you decide to take a few hours off. Treat yourself right and take care and focus on your close relationships.
Conflicts with Loved One
When you’re inside with the same person all day, no matter the situation or dynamic, there’s bound to be tension. We’re complex humans with many wants and needs, which may not match those of others, and this is where conflicts emerge. The relationship between caregiver and loved one can also take a wrong turn if a loved one begins to take the caregiver for granted, taking advantage of their kindness.
For some, guilt is a part of the caregiving journey, although it may not be as apparent as other emotions, and usually falls into one of these categories:
- Guilt over inadequate care (even if only perceived)
- Guilt over neglected relationships
- Guilt over negative feelings toward the loved one or the patient
Tackling feelings of guilt starts with recognizing where they’re coming from. Some caregivers say that meditation in a quiet, dark space can be revelatory if you struggle to find the root cause. Pay close attention to any negative feelings that emerge.
Once you grasp the issues, you can begin working on solutions. Neglected relationships can be mended over coffee. Inadequate care can be rectified by seeking outside help. Negative feelings towards your loved one are not always easily solved, but you can try to lessen the tension by sharing interests, asking more questions, and engaging in conversations on various topics.
Most of all, be kind to yourself. Practice self-love, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness. You deserve it.
Stress is Probably Inevitable
Caregivers routinely find that their days don’t necessarily go according to plan, and stress can snowball. According to a six-year study of older adults caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s Disease, the stress involved with caregiving negatively impacted their health.
The study, done at Ohio State University, found that the health of caregivers suffered over time and resulted in a 63% higher death rate than a similar group of non-caregivers. The never-ending demands and stress caregivers experience can also lead to depression, affect the quality of care, and even shortens lifespans.
Physical and Emotional Stress
Dealing with a loved one can be stressful and affect your physical well-being. Pain, anxiety, and even hair loss may indicate that you’re overburdened and need a break.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. Perhaps a family member or friend can take over caregiving duties while you visit a chiropractor or masseuse. Exercise is the body’s natural stress relief, so try and find time for some physical activity. Place your physical and mental health above all else because it’s difficult to care for another person if you’re under the weather.
Keeping stress and expectations in check can help tamper down the frustration level. Don’t expect things to go exactly as planned, and don’t expect other people to have your best interests in mind. It’s a slight mental adjustment, but it can help you better manage your mood.
It can be easy to let minor deviations in your schedule ruin your day. Plan extra time between daily activities to prevent tasks from stacking atop one another.
If you feel emotionally stressed, activities like yoga or meditation might offer a sense of calm. Some caregivers find that breathing exercises can also help.
Spending every waking hour with one person can leave caregivers feeling isolated. As time goes on, you may lose touch with friends and family. Or, because you are so busy with caregiving, you may stop answering the phone, and now it rarely rings.
According to caseworkers who regularly check in with caregivers, isolation can lead to more significant problems like depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, the longer a period of isolation lasts, the harder it is to get back on track.
Technology can be an excellent resource for finding like-minded people. Facebook Groups and other social media platforms were built to connect people of similar interests. Be proactive. If you do, you might find other caregivers and support groups waiting for someone like you to come along.
Caregivers that constantly face highly demanding workloads often have bouts of depression. Can you tell whether you’re just experiencing a bit of melancholy, lacking motivation, or seriously depressed? The latter needs an evaluation from a medical professional. They’ll assess your mental health and offer treatment options, including medication or therapy.
If your depression feels overwhelming and you need help immediately, don’t hesitate to reach out to resources like the Oregon Department of Human Services at 855-673-2372 or a mental health hotline like the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 800-950-6264.
When someone takes on the caregiving challenge, they commit to two schedules: their own and their loved ones. Without help, many caregivers take on too many tasks and are drained at the end of the day. Sleep issues associated with caregiving can result in serious mental and physical health issues that sabotage your caregiving efforts and your ability to care for yourself.
If you can’t sleep long enough to feel revived, try to schedule a power nap. Stay away from sugar, carbohydrates, and processed foods.
Whatever you do, don’t wait until your health issues become a problem or until there’s no turning back. It’s not only you who are counting on your health but also your loved one.
It’s Okay to Get by With a Little Help from Your Friends
Although many websites offer advice to caregivers, caregiver.org has in-depth information on various topics and ways to ensure your sanity and well-being. Here are some recommendations which echo the topics we’ve previously discussed.
- Give yourself a break. Even if all you do is run errands or go to a coffee shop, leave the house.
- Take care of yourself. Brush your teeth. Shower. Sleep whenever you can. Eat.
- Request help. Ask family or friends for help, hire someone, or investigate local resources.
- Talk to someone. Use online support groups to vent and commiserate.
- Read a book. Transport your mind somewhere else, even for just a few minutes.
- Appreciate the good days. Make the best of the time you have with them.
The Council on Aging of Central Oregon can help.
The Council on Aging of Central Oregon assists older adults and caregivers in seeking information and resources, respite care, support groups, and more.
Council on Aging has Case Managers who help seniors and their families by:
- Performing a thorough in-home assessment of the senior’s condition and living situation
- Developing a care plan to assist the person in maintaining a quality life
- Determining if older adults qualify for any government programs
- Educating seniors about the services and programs available
The Council on Aging also offers the following:
- Information and Referrals
- Care Management
- Nutrition Services (Meals on Wheels and Community Dining)
- Legal Assistance
About Laurie Weber: Laurie is the Creative Director and writer at the Council on Aging of Central Oregon.
About Wes Vaughn: Wes is a Case Manager at the Council on Aging of Central Oregon. He mediates several weekly caregiver support groups and completes assessments for the Older American Act programs available. Wes travels across the tri-county area, offering Options Counseling and meeting with older adults and their families.