Being responsible for assisting an elderly family member is important, but so are you

Did you know more than 42 million people in the U.S. are family caregivers? You may be one and not realize it. Caregiving is hands-on assistance, but may also include errands, making appointments, helping with finances, driving to the pharmacy, or making phone calls to an individual to check in.

If you take time off from work to take an elderly person or family member to the doctor, have an older relative/friend call you nearly every day with a question or problem, or have lost sleep worrying about an elderly person, then you are a caregiver.

Assisting an aging or ill family member can be rewarding, but is often physically and emotionally exhausting. There are several factors which affect the level of stress you experience: your relationship with the individual, your support system, the type of care needed, and if you are voluntarily assisting the individual. Many caregivers find themselves providing assistance with all the necessary tasks with little help from other family or community services.

Family members who are responsible for assisting their relatives report being sleep- deprived, eating poorly, not exercising, working through illness and postponing their own health care needs. They are also at increased risk for depression, substance abuse and chronic illness.

If you find yourself neglecting your own needs while caring for someone, ask yourself: “What good will I be to the person I care for if I become ill?” You CAN improve your situation by doing a few important things.

Identify personal barriers.

Do you feel guilty if you take time for yourself? Do you have trouble asking for what you need? Did you promise to care for your loved one no matter what? Do you feel you have to prove you are worthy of affection from your relative? Once you can answer these questions objectively, you can begin to change your behavior gradually.

Reduce personal stress.

Recognize red flags – sleep disturbance, quick anger, forgetfulness, and others. Act to make changes before these things overwhelm you. Try to pin down the source of stress; is it criticism from a sibling, inability to set limits, or just too much to do? We can only change what we can control, such as our attitude. Find a way to get some “me” time – coffee with a friend, a walk, meditation, or a hobby.

Set goals.

Determine what is most important to accomplish in the next few months. Do you need a few days off to recharge? Or maybe you require help with some specific tasks. Ensure you schedule a check-up with your own doctor. Your health is important. Write these goals down and tackle one at a time.

Ask for and accept help.

Many caregivers report being alone in their journey. But when questioned, it becomes clear they are uncomfortable asking for assistance or saying “yes” when help is offered. Think about specific tasks which a relative, friend, church member or neighbor could provide. These may include having someone sit with your relative for 15 minutes while you take a bath; having someone pick up groceries or prescriptions while they’re out shopping for themselves; assisting with yard or housework; or completing paperwork. The spouse of a man with dementia told me, “I look for a ‘good enough’ solution, not perfection. No one can do things as well as I can, but it’s good enough.” Sometimes a family meeting is necessary to get everyone on the same page and negotiate.

Learn about resources.

There is so much information on the Internet and in our local libraries on chronic and acute illnesses. Read as much as you can about your loved one’s condition, whether it is dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke, or other medical need. Seek material on caregiving itself. Many Facebook groups cater to caregivers, for example there are groups such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregivers Support. Our community also has a myriad of services for seniors such as home-delivered meals, transportation options, home repairs, and others. See our additional resources page for more information.

Somehow many people assume the role of caregiver should come naturally. Like being a parent, we are not necessarily born with the skills required. Education, help and support is necessary to do the best job possible. Recognize your limitations, reach out for help, and pat yourself on the back for taking on a difficult yet rewarding task, and most importantly take care of yourself.

This article originally appeared in Warrenton Lifestyle Magazine | February 2018