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Valuable Lessons Caregivers Can Learn From Nurses

Tips and advice from the pros who provide care for a living

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Nurses are on the front lines when it comes to caregiving. They walk into work each day, ready to dispense both physical and mental medicine; they motivate, inspire, heal and deliver care in every medical situation. And, of course, behind every nursing uniform is a person — a parent or sibling, friend or child — who may be returning home to a caregiving situation with their own family members.   

When my husband was in a coma for 36 days in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, the nurses were my heroes. They understood how to dispense hope without making promises, and they did that through sharing a story or anecdote about patients who had recovered well. Those helpful stories were often just enough of a nugget to get me through the day. 

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As caregivers, there is so much we can learn from nurses. Here are some pieces of wisdom, coping skills and advice from nurses that can help each of us in our daily roles.

Make yourself as strong as you can

​Kiera Powell, 26, of Charlotte, North Carolina, is a nurse with Carewell, a health care e-commerce company that provides home health products, support and resources to caregivers. She graduated from UNC Charlotte School of Nursing in 2019 and almost immediately was thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic in an intensive care unit, a highly stressful environment no matter how much experience one has.  

spinner image Kiera Powell advises caregivers to “make yourself as strong as you can.”
Kiera Powell advises caregivers to “make yourself as strong as you can.”
Kurth Nelson

Powell saw health care professionals “burning out” all around her. She recalls the initial fear around COVID-19 before there were clearer answers about the virus. “There was so much sadness among families, and nurses were FaceTiming family members because they could not be by the bedside,” Powell recalls. “It was hard to watch that and stressful at times to constantly push down your own needs and take care of someone else. Some days it was hard to separate your needs from the patient.

“As a nurse, you often see people during the hardest time of their lives, whether it’s a loved one going through a disease or illness or someone struggling to communicate with cognitive impairment,” Powell says. “It’s important to not to take things personally. Patience and understanding are key in tense situations as they will help you avoid taking on additional stress and frustration.”

Working in the ICU, there were numerous times Powell and her team had exhausted all their resources caring for an individual. “Although we’d done all we were medically able to do, the next priority is to ensure that the patient is at ease and without distress,” she says. “As caregivers, it’s human nature to want to go above and beyond for our loved ones, but it’s important to realize when we’re doing all that we can. We all need to take time to reflect on what we can do to make day-to-day life more joyful.”

Nurses try not to bring work home, Powell says. “But for caregivers whose work is at home, it’s even more critical to have small, tiny activities that are your own, whether that’s getting a pedicure or even being alone in the grocery store.”

“Ask yourself what you can do to make yourself as strong as you can,” she suggests. “You have to be able to step away from time to time, as hard as that may be. It’s the same mindset as having a child. You can’t do everything for them, although you’d like to, so you need to try to get in the mindset of using outside resources for help.”

Taking on projects and pets can help

Sonya Hart, 48, from Charlotte, North Carolina, is a former certified nursing assistant (CNA) who worked in nursing facilities and cared for patients in-home. She left work to become a full-time caregiver for her father-in-law after a stroke left him immobile, and she cared for him for seven years.

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“Pick up a hobby that you can do while you’re looking after your care recipient,” she suggests. “It’s a great way to give your brain a break. Whether it’s cooking, knitting or crafting jewelry, it should be something that has nothing to do with caregiving so that you can give your emotions a break.”

spinner image Sonya Hart cared for her father-in-law for seven years.
Sonya Hart cared for her father-in-law for seven years.
Sonya Hart

Hart recommends that the hobby have a “result” — something with a finished product that allows you to feel as if you are working toward a goal. “Making progress on a project helps motivate you to continue the activity,” Hart says. “As a CNA, I’d knit during breaks to take my mind off things. I certainly used crocheting as my way to cope and rest when I became a caregiver for my father-in-law.” 

Another helpful piece of advice, although not for everyone, is to get a pet that can help improve mental well-being through companionship and support. “Whenever I needed a break, I go to the backyard to feed the chickens, and it helps me compose myself,” Hart says. “When caring for my father-in-law, we bonded over the chickens. I’d roll him to the back porch to watch them eat and play and we’d laugh whenever they did something silly.” She says it’s important to make sure the pet is low maintenance, so it doesn’t add to an already full plate.

Hart suggests finding projects, interests or events to bond over with a care recipient. “One of my patients loved matching games, so we would play them often,” she recalls. “Seeing her enjoy the game and hearing her laugh would lighten my mood and made me feel as though I was keeping someone company, versus caring for them. 

Find renewed perspective

Ann Nelson, 61, from Fort Mill, South Carolina, worked as an ICU nurse for six years before moving to a clinical setting focusing on neurological research. Her husband, David, 64, developed Huntington’s disease in 2006. As the condition progressed, he began needing constant supervision, and she became his full-time caregiver in 2013. 

spinner image Ann Nelson with daughters Audrey (left), Claire and husband, Dave
Ann Nelson with daughters Audrey (left), Claire and husband, Dave
Ann Nelson

“Be kind to yourself” is Nelson’s first piece of advice. “Chasing perfection and thinking that every day is going to be a great day will set you up for failure.” She draws on her experience in the ICU where some days were harder than others. “It’s important for your own mental health as a caregiver to accept that the bad days will happen and you will get through them.” 

Keeping things in perspective is essential to help cope when you’re feeling overwhelmed, Nelson advises. “There will certainly be times when you don’t want to be a caregiver or when you want to escape and take a break.” Taking those breaks or having someone relieve you isn’t always possible, so she suggests focusing less on the immediate situation and instead looking at the bigger picture. Think about the care recipient’s needs and how you’re able to be there for them. 

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“This helps you reevaluate the situation and hopefully allows for you to pull back, get perspective and try to focus on being more appreciative of your ability and life,” Nelson says. “That kind of mental perspective is something I practiced when I worked in the ICU, and I also apply it to my role as my husband’s caregiver.” 

As she did when she was an ICU nurse, Nelson often reminds herself that she is here to help others on their journey in life. “That’s what I am doing now,” she says. “I’m helping my husband on his own life journey. Not everyone can be a caregiver. It’s a hard job, and I have respect for myself because I am that person who is doing hard things.”

Dealing with anger

Gail Koffman, 70, of Silver Spring, Maryland, graduated from nursing school in 1977 and took an emergency room job in New Bern, North Carolina, where she worked for 12 years before meeting her husband, Bob, a flight surgeon at the time.

Once married, she moved frequently because of her husband’s military career, garnering more degrees and experience. She works as a nurse practitioner and licensed acupuncturist in occupational medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Koffman learned a great deal from caring for her father, who had dementia. “As caregivers, we are always thinking about what we’re going to do today and tomorrow,” Koffman says. “When my father got the disease, he was always in the present. It was all he had, and that taught me to try to live each day in the moment.”

She acknowledges that it’s hard to tell the caregiver to be in the present because everyone has different pressures and stresses. “Your ability to interact and to accept the challenges you face daily also changes every day,” she says. “That’s completely normal.”

Dealing with anger is another area where Koffman, who worked on a psychiatric unit as well as the emergency department, has a lot of experience and advice. “Anger is a common emotion in caregiving, whether it’s someone who is frustrated or someone who has had to wait five hours to be seen,” she says. “The worst thing you can do is to respond to their anger with anger. This is a place where gentle words can help, choosing phrases that are soothing and acknowledge someone’s emotions, such as ‘I don’t know what you are experiencing right now, and there is a lot going on. Maybe I can help if you’d let me.’ ”   

Koffman feels it’s important to take a little time to break things down for people and explain them in a way that’s easy to understand. “You can’t give someone false hope or take away someone’s pain,” she says, “but you can be there for them and attempt to answer any questions that they have.”

More Top Tips From Nurses

  • Embrace technology. Explore any tools or shortcuts that can make your life easier. If an app or program, such as a food delivery service, can save you five minutes, use it.  
  • Research outside nursing services and other online resources. Churches and hospitals have resources and support groups and can offer creative ways you can lean on people in your community.  
  • Educate yourself. The more you learn about your loved one’s situation — the easier it will be.
  • Don’t stuff down your own emotions. If no one is there to talk to, talk to yourself, yell in the car or write hard feelings down.
  • Feel the gratitude. If you are a person of faith, tap into that. Gratitude work creates a positive feeling for all. Hug and thank other caregivers and acknowledge when you see people doing selfless acts.

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