No joking matter, or is it?
By Mary Bart
Jennifer is into her fourth year as a full-time caregiver to her husband, who has suffered several strokes, and also to her mother, who has extreme arthritis and mobility issues. Jennifer’s best friend Liz notices that Jenny hasn’t been her old self lately. Something’s changed. She is worrying a lot, and is anxious and prone to irritation. This isn’t the Jenny that Liz knows and loves.
Could this be a case of caregiver burnout? Let’s take a look at some of the issues that might be involved and tips that can help to beat caregiver burnout—including seeing the funnier side of life!
You may be burning out if you feel run down or resentful of the person you’re caring for. You might get more easily frustrated or irritated. You might lose your temper faster, or feel depressed, sad or alone—or, on the other hand, claustrophobic. Gosh, sometimes all Jennifer wants is to be alone.“What is wrong with being alone?” she laughs. Maybe you are always worrying? Perhaps your worries revolve around financial issues, or how things will change in the future (or that they might not change). Have you turned into a “worry wart”? Are you lacking energy and feeling run down or always exhausted?
You might also feel guilty that either you should be doing more or that you’re neglecting others in your life. You might find yourself getting sick more often; missing sessions of your regular exercise classes; having trouble focusing or concentrating; or feeling overwhelmed.
All of these are signs of caregiver burnout. Many caregivers start to overuse alcohol or food as a way of coping. They also spend less time with their own friends and family, so they become socially isolated. Here are a few tips for beating burnout:
Call a friend
Set up a regular time with someone with whom you can enjoy a quick conversation (either online or on the phone). Talking to a friend for just 15 minutes each week will boost your spirits.
Stay in the know
Become more knowledgeable about the medical issues you are dealing with and how to improve your caregiving skills—as well as how to take better care of yourself.
Ask for help
You cannot sustain caregiving on your own. It takes a village to truly give good care. Develop a village and count on your friends. Add some humour when asking for help. Say something like: “Look, I only have two hands and I need eight. How can you help me?”
Don’t think you are the only person who can provide care. The care offered by others may not happen in exactly the same way as you would do it, but if you let go, you might learn something.
Don’t let caregiving consume you. It can be a bottomless pit and ruin your life (including relationships, quality of life, and your career and happiness). Set limits as to what you can do well. Remember Nancy Reagan’s favourite expression: “Just say no.” Try it—it just might work.
Tell your family, friends and the medical personnel you deal with exactly what you need and what you are prepared to do. Life is all about setting expectations. Make sure that people clearly understand what they can expect from you.
Staying social is vital for your sanity. It will help you find greater balance in your life. Even meeting a friend for coffee will lift your spirits and bring greater perspective to your caregiving. If you can, spend time with “upbeat” people—it’s a sure way to bring more laughter and positivity into your life.
Find a support group
Look for support groups both online and in your community. Such groups are great for finding peer support, learning about local resources, connecting with like-minded folks and reminding yourself that you’re not alone.
Escape when you can
If you are to survive caregiving then you must find ways to take breaks. Look for local respite services that can relieve you for an hour or even a half-day once a week. Investigate adult day-care centres and seniors’ homes that accept short-term stays. And when you make your temporary escape, don’t look back. Just keep going.
Remember that wonderful television advert from a major home-furnishings retailer with the lady loaded down with bags, running out of the store, screaming: “Start the car!” That’s what escaping feels like for a caregiver.
Take care of yourself
Caregiving is a journey, and one that can last for many years. Remember to take care of your health. If you don’t, the chances are someone will be taking care of you all too soon. Make sure to eat well, get enough sleep, engage in daily physical exercise, and don’t over-eat or rely on alcohol.
It is better to give than receive
Share some of your caregiver responsibilities with others. See if there are local services or family and friends who can carry some of the load.
Create a system to manage medical appointments, pay bills, and buy groceries and medical products. Buy colourful, cheerful binders, note pads and sticky notes with happy faces and funny expressions.
“It’s all about me”
Can you imagine a caregiver saying that? Think about what you need and act on it for at least one hour a day. It might be taking an extra-long bath, getting a pedicure or just watching something on television. This daily commitment to yourself requires planning and then maximizing your “me time.”
Try saying “Really?”
This is a great way to deal with things that you don’t agree with. Instead of arguing, say “Really?” with a smile and see the reaction. A simple word and a smile goes along way to control a situation. Really!
Can you learn from Jennifer and Liz? Why not create your own plan to fight caregiver burnout, that will help you recognize ways to prevent it. A plan that includes humour and laughter.
Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an Internet-based registered charity that offers education and support to people dealing with the declining health or death of a parent. caregivingmatters.ca