The image of the lone warrior walking with determination toward an unknown enemy is one that fits many who suffer with chronic illness. The illness is unnamed and the sufferer feels alone in their battle. What supports the warrior’s strength to keep moving forward is knowing a caregiver is with them. The warrior behind the warrior.
Care for the Caregiver
As life changing as a chronic illness is for the sufferer, it’s also a shock to the system for the ones who suddenly find themselves in the role of caregiver. Approximately 43.5 million people have provided unpaid care for an adult or a child in the past 12 months in the U.S. alone. Caregivers have a new set of life challenges they have to adapt to. Caregiver health is quickly becoming a public health issue. In order to keep the chronically ill person experiencing the best life possible, it’s important for these warriors in the wings to take care of themselves as well.
Take Care of You
Anyone who has flown on a plane knows this, you put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. If you’re not breathing, you’re no good to anyone. The same goes for caregivers, you must take care of yourself or you’ll be unable to take care of anyone else. Unfortunately caregivers often neglect themselves when caring for another.
Statistics show that caregivers experience high levels of stress and anxiety, physical ailments like acid reflux, headaches, body aches and pains along with a diminished immune response which leaves them susceptible to frequent infection and increased risk of cancers. Caregivers also exhibit exaggerated cardiovascular responses to stressful conditions which puts them in greater risk to develop high blood pressure or heart disease.
Caregivers also experience sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, failure to exercise, failure to stay in bed when ill, postponement of or failure to make medical appointments for themselves. This is due to the caregiver feeling they need to give all free time and attention to the one who is ill.
A caregiver will often let their own health fall to the wayside because of misconceptions they have. Over time a caregiver starts to believe; I am responsible for my patient’s health, if I don’t do it no one else will, I’m the only one who knows how to do this right and if I do it right, I’ll get the love, attention and respect I deserve.
These misconceptions send the caregiver into a downward spiral and then, no one is getting the full help or attention they need.
Manage The Stress
The first step to being a smarter caregiver and taking care of yourself is to identify and manage the incredible stress that you’re under.
Identifying and recognizing the warning signs of stress are important steps, once you learn the cues, you can work toward alleviating stress. The warning signs include irritability, sleep problems, forgetfulness, shortness of temper, fatigue and a lack of focus.
When the stress cues are identified, then you need to identify what is causing the stress. This could be a number of things all piled on top of each other. Family issues, feelings of inadequacy, a lack of time, too much to do and the inability to say ‘no’ can all be stress triggers that need to be identified by the caregiver.
Simply taking action can reduce stress. After you’ve identified what causes the stress in your new situation, taking clear and focused action toward eliminating the stressors will start the release of stress. The simple doing or moving toward a goal releases you of the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness which are huge factors in the build up of stress.
Know that there are things you will be able to change when you’re seeking to eliminate your stress but there are things that are not in your control that you cannot change. Wishing you could make the person you’re caring for better, taking on responsibility for them not being “healed” is a rabbit hole that will pull you down into overwhelming stress that can lead to depression and you getting sick yourself. Change what you can and what you cannot, you must learn to let go and accept.
You Are Not Impervious
As a caregiver your life has changed drastically. It may have been a gradual change or, for most, it is a very sudden, almost overnight change. Dealing with this change, recognizing it and accepting it is one the hardest things to do however, it’s vital that you accept and don’t give up.
Don’t pretend that everything is the same as it was, it’s not. You’re in the middle of a change and you need to take the time to grieve the loss of your old life. Only when the grieving process has been faced can you truly move forward and embrace your new life in a healthy and productive manner.
You may have to grieve the loss of a relationship as well. Perhaps your life partner or spouse is the person you’ve become a caregiver to, that relationship is now changed. Allow yourself to recognize and deal with that change.
Share with others your new situation. There is a reluctance to tell others you’re a caregiver, this comes from not wanting your life to change and believing that hiding the new situation will allow you to control the reality of the change. The truth is, by hiding your new situation, you’re putting yourself in a very stressful situation. Hiding your reality will become a full time job. Turning down invitations to places, making excuses will eventually become completely overwhelming and your stress levels will rise. Men are particularly resistant to sharing the fact that they have become caregivers and this leads to a high level of clinical depression among male caregivers.
Reality Comes to Town
Don’t try to be a caregiver superhero. Understand that you’re going to have bad days. Even if you’re getting everything done and you’re on top of the workload, your heart may not be in it or you may wish that you were free of the burden. Don’t feel guilty about that. Those feelings are natural. Also, don’t feel guilty if you go out and have a good time. Sometimes caregivers get into the mindset of how can I have fun when my patient, friend, spouse is home being sick?
The reality is the person you’re caring for wants you to go out and wants you to have joy in your life. By you having a good time the chronically ill person can feel less of a burden. Buddhists call this ‘mudita’- feeling joy for other people who are happy. If you have open communication with the person you’re caring for, you can work toward mutual mudita.
Ask For Help
If you’re caring for a person who is housebound, after time, it can be easy to allow yourself to become isolated. If you find this happening, it’s time to ask for help.
It’s easy, when someone asks if you need help with anything, to deflect and say no, I have it under control. This is avoidance and the old feelings that only you can handle the situation. Asking for help is never easy but, if you do, you’re going to relieve your stress level, get free time to yourself and be a better caregiver.
What helps is to have a list in your head of small talks people can do to help you out. Things like, can you pick up a few items at the store for me. Come by and sit with the sick person for half an hour so you can go to the store or just have some alone time. Having a list at the ready of small tasks makes your life easier and the people who ask feel useful.
Give Yourself a Break
Your life has changed. In most cases, you’re facing more questions than you’ll ever have answers to. It’s important you take time for yourself, think of your well being and take steps to relieve stress when you feel it rising. Ask for help, admit to your situation and don’t forget that you’re a valuable person. Finding balance is important now in your new life. Seek that balance and you may find peace on your new situation.