If you are providing care for a parent or older family member, chances are good that you are also feeling stressed at times. Perhaps you feel guilty because you feel you aren’t doing enough, and you’re frustrated that you can’t do more. You can’t remember the last time you slept through the night without a call from your father. You can’t bear to see what’s happening to your mother, whose health has been declining for some time.
You are not alone! Here in Connecticut, it’s estimated that nearly 380,000 adults are providing care for an older relative or friend. A study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that more than half of those who provide major care for parents experience stress and strain. Studies have shown that experiencing stress is not just unpleasant—it can negatively affect our health, well-being, and ability to provide care. This means that if you’re going to provide good care for those you love, you should start by taking care of yourself.
The good news is that you can take steps to manage the stress you feel as a caregiver, and improve your physical and mental health to benefit yourself, your older loved ones, and others who depend on you.
What You Can Do
When you are caring for others, taking care of yourself and your needs is like performing regular maintenance on your car. It is critical to staying in shape over time. Here are some of the ways you might nurture yourself to cope with stress and maintain your well-being:
Take Care of Your Health. Eat nutritious meals; don’t give in to stress-driven urges for sweets or overindulge in alcohol. Get enough sleep; if you are awakened at night try napping during the day to make up your sleep. Exercise regularly, even if it means finding someone else to provide care while you walk or go to exercise class. Get regular medical checkups; if you have any symptoms of depression (extreme sadness, trouble concentrating, apathy, hopelessness, thoughts about death) see a doctor right away. Depression is an illness that can, and must, be treated.
Involve Others. Make up a list of tasks you need help with and ask friends, neighbors and other family members if they could contribute some time to helping out. Tasks could include household chores, home repair or maintenance, driving, paying bills, finding information on services you need, or simply giving you a break by staying with Mom while you get away for awhile.
Maintain Social Contacts. Isolation increases stress, while having fun, laughing, and focusing on something besides your problems can help you keep your emotional balance.
Get Help From Community Services and Organizations. Consider a geriatric care manager to coordinate all aspects of your parent’s care. Support could include home health aides, shopping assistants, a homemaker or someone to do home repairs, meal services, information and referral programs, volunteers or staff from faith-based organizations who could visit or help with driving.
Consider respite care for some time off. Adult day centers, which usually operate five days a week during business hours, provide care to people in a group setting—including health monitoring, transportation, nursing care and therapeutic recreation. Here in Connecticut, caregivers can take advantage of a number of community services and organizations—including the Connecticut Statewide Respite Care Program, National Family Caregiver Program, the Connecticut Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers and other local programs that can provide caregivers with information, resources and a break when needed.
For more information about local resources in CT, click here.
Talk About It. Research suggests that keeping your feelings bottled up can harm your immune system and lead to physical illness. Talk to friends and family about your feelings. Share experiences with coworkers in similar situations. See a professional counselor. Join a caregiver support group to share emotions and experiences, see and give advice, and exchange practical information with your peers. Caregiver support groups are available in many communities. Check your local newspaper for calendar listings and meeting times.
Deal Constructively with Negative Feelings. When feeling resentful, think about how to change things. Recognize the anger-guilt-anger cycle, and stop it immediately by forgiving yourself for being angry. Then distance yourself from the situation, figure out what caused the anger, and decide how you can respond more constructively the next time. Hold a family meeting to resolve conflicts with siblings and other relatives. And recognize your accomplishments as a caregiver instead of dwelling on your shortcomings.
Providing care for an older loved one can be stressful, but there are ways to minimize the stress. By maintaining a healthy routine, watching your diet, enlisting help from others and exploring community services that support caregivers, you can ensure that you are providing the best care possible—for your loved ones, and yourself.
For additional information and resources for caregivers, visit www.AARP.org/caregiving.
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