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Reducing Caregiver Stress
Study after study has documented the heavy toll of caregiving. With it come psychological and physical effects, and depending on the amount and level of care a person is providing, those effects can be quite severe.
Karen Bruner, Director of Bethany Village at Home, a home care agency in Mechanicsburg, Pa., has first-hand experience from when she served as a caregiver for her critically ill husband and others.However, she also sees the challenges this role brings when speaking with prospective clients.
Her three steps for reducing caregiver stress (see box) are short and simple, but she’s quick to acknowledge that following them often requires a complex, emotional struggle. However, the stakes for following them are high.
Q: Why is it challenging to reach out for assistance even when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of caregiving?
A: When adult children or a spouse is acting as a caregiver, they face an array of complicated emotions that make asking for help difficult. First, there’s the feeling many of us have that we should be able to handle everything that comes our way. Then, there is a sense of duty and a concern that people will judge you if you don’t take on this role. It takes a very strong person to look at the situation objectively and say, ‘I need help.’ It’s can be a difficult conversation to sit down with a parent and your siblings and say, ‘I have a family, I work full time, I really want to help you, but we need some additional folks in here to help.’
Many assume that even if you did ask no one would help because they’re busy, too. You think you’re imposing. But you have to keep in mind that you’re not asking that person to take on the same level of responsibility you carry. It is also a mistake to assume that hiring support services will be too expensive when it might be affordable to get assistance in some areas –particularly respite care.
Q: What advice do you give caregivers?
A: Joining a support group is a great first step in reducing the stress that comes with caring for others, particularly when you are juggling a job and your own family. You may say you don’t have time, but you do. Make it. It can become a real lifeline. A quick, online search will bring up support groups in your area for just about any condition.
Q: Why is self-care so important for the caregiver?
A: When we try to do it all, there’s always some aspect of our lives that has to give – sometimes more than one thing.
With caregiving comes the possibility ofsocial isolation. We sacrifice the time we would usefor ourselves and family activities. Exercise falls off which would otherwise be helping to reduce stress. Sleep deprivation and poor nutrition are common. We grab something that’s quick and easy rather than taking time to make a healthy meal. Stress affects your heart, lowers immunity and can exacerbate chronic conditions such as diabetes and arthritis.
Caregiving can be physically demanding and even dangerous, too. When you’re talking about helping someone get up from a bed or move them onto a chair or commode, it can be physically demanding. It requires strength and good balance. Meal preparation is one thing, supporting all daily living tasks is another. You can easily end up with two folks who need care and attention and not just one.
Q: What are the special challenges that accompany providing care for someone with memory loss?
A: There’s a sense of constant vigilance. You’re dealing with a loss of communication skills. Then, there is the short-term memory loss and all that brings. That’s even more challenging when the person is aware of the symptoms – as happens in the early stages of dementia. They become depressed, confused and anxious. Sometimes people with dementia will hide items or forget where they put them and accuse you of taking, hiding or throwing them out. You can’t reason your way through it with them or logically explain a sequence of events. That is very hard for a loved one.
Q: What can people do if they feel they can’t afford to hire a home care agency for support services? Are there free resources in the community for caregiver support or respite?
A: Ask a friend, close neighbor or other family member to stay with the resident your parent or spouse while you go out. Church members often are happy to do this. People want to help. Bringing in a friend or volunteer can be more difficult if someone is in the more advanced stages of dementia – typically that is where people begin looking at a home care agency or other living options. Yet churches and senior centers may have volunteers who have experience in less advanced stages.
Contact your local Office on Aging and let them know you’re a caregiver and are looking for some resources for respite care. If the person is eligible for Veterans Administration benefits, depending on the need, they can give up to 30 days of free care. If they have long-term care insurance, check the policy because it may be covered. Medicare and Medicaid may cover some services. There is help out there.
Three Steps to Reducing Caregiver Stress
- Acknowledge that no one can do it all.
- Ask for help – and accept it.
- Don’t fall into the it’s-my-way-or-the-highway trap.