With the senior population living longer, it’s likely that a majority of us will serve as caregivers for an elderly parent, relative, or neighbor at some point. For most of us, that means carving time out of already hectic schedules. Considering that almost 60% of caregivers are juggling their volunteer responsibilities with the demands of a paying job, it’s no surprise that 2 out of 3 report high levels of stress and worry.
Warning signs of stress overload can include feeling overwhelmed, or constantly worried; feeling unusually tired; sleeping too much, or too little; feeling predominantly sad, frustrated, or angry; losing interest in activities you once enjoyed; and gaining or losing a lot of weight. If you recognize this behavior in yourself, or a caregiver you know, it’s probably time to make some changes.
But the obvious question is … who cares for the caregivers? If you’re one of them, your response might be “good question!” We’re here to assure you that there ARE achievable ways to alleviate the stress of caregiving that don’t involve day-long spa treatments (although wouldn’t that be nice!). Here are the most doable and effective ways we’ve learned from the families in our communities:
- Take care of yourself first: You’ve heard the flight attendant say to place your own oxygen mask on before helping others; well, caregiving operates on the same principle. You’re no good to anyone without proper sleep and nutrition – so prioritize eating well and, if your nighttime sleep is interrupted, schedule a nap during the day. Exercise can seem like a luxury when your feeling maxed out – but that’s when you need it the most in terms of both physical and mental health. So even if you have to get coverage in order to work out, do it.
- Stay in touch with family and friends. The demands of caregiving can feel isolating, which can add to feeling discouraged and even depressed. Schedule coffee with a friend, or a walk with a neighbor – even 30 minutes a few times a week will help you feel more connected and grounded.
- Ask for help. This can be a tough one, particularly since caregivers can often feel more comfortable being on the providing end. But delegating tasks can actually help you be more effective for a longer period of time. For example, if it’s your dad whom you’re caring for, start with family members and close friends whom you can call upon for discreet tasks. Then, consider widening the circle to include your dad’s friends and neighbors – and make sure to check out local community organizations like a nearby senior center, or dad’s parish community. You may feel reluctant to ask for help at first, but you’d be surprised to discover how many people are willing to lend a hand.
- Set realistic goals. Just as no parent can be perfect, there’s no such thing as a perfect caregiver. Make task lists, reexamine priorities, and let go for now of some non-essential things you’ve always done – like hosting a holiday dinner, or baking for the church fair.
- Reach out to other caregivers. While friends and family can be supportive, sometimes it’s more helpful to commiserate with people walking in your shoes. The Alzheimer’s Association has a network of support groups across the country; alternatively, they offer online message boards and a 24/7 help line – 272.3900. The AARP also offers occasional online chats for caregivers, hosted by eldercare experts who take questions and offer valuable coping strategies.