By Dr. Vinay Saranga M.D.
Life as a caregiver means finding yourself on an unplanned trajectory that is often disruptive and uncomfortable. During your day, you’ll be asked to make difficult decisions and be pushed to your limit when it comes to getting things done. Here are a few ideas that you can use to stay cool, calm and collected.
1. Always act and speak with compassion: Diminishing independence is often a rough transitional time for many seniors. The impact can take a toll on both their physical and mental well-being so it’s best to always lead with compassion. At times, this may not be easy. Some elders will protest things like in-home care or handing over the car keys. Even when you have to make tough decisions, be compassionate.
2. Be encouraging yet delicate: Aging is difficult enough on its own and is even more challenging when a mental illness is present. Know when to give them a slight push or words of encouragement to try new things and get out of the house. At the same time, know when to keep your mouth shut and let them do their own thing.
3. Don’t get frustrated when they forget things: Many illnesses in the elderly bring about both short and long-term memory problems. Even if you’ve told them something 10 times, don’t get upset, angry or frustrated when they forget things, whether it’s important or personal dates like birthdays and anniversaries or less meaningful but still important items like paying a bill or missing an appointment.
4. Plan out difficult conversations ahead of time: You might have to discuss taking away driving privileges or moving to a nursing home. These types of major life changes can dramatically impact the well being of an elderly person. Loss of independence and routine can trigger emotions like anger, frustration and depression. Carefully plan out your approach and key points to emphasize ahead of time.
5. Find alternatives: Alternatives can help those with diminishing independence develop a positive outlook. Come up with a ride schedule if a loved one had to stop driving. Work to find a compassionate caregiver who can help keep them healthy, happy and comfortable if in-home care is now a necessity. Do whatever it takes to give them as much freedom as possible.
6. Give yourself a break: You love Mom and Dad with all your heart and would do anything to help them, but don’t neglect yourself when caring for them. Caregiver burnout is very common because people devote every moment to the person in need and forget to take care of themselves. Eat right. Exercise. Take time to relax and unwind.
7. Don’t miss or skip doctor appointments: If your elderly mom or dad is being treated by a psychiatrist, psychologist or any other mental health professional and starts to show improvement, don’t think they are cured and cancel your appointments. Mental illness can come and go at times and patients can make significant progress and also have setbacks. Elderly patients need to be monitored very closely, especially if they are taking medications for other conditions.
8. Don’t assume you know what to look for: As the caregiver to an elderly patient, you need to know the less talked about symptoms to look for that can indicate a psychiatric condition such as unexplained fatigue, change in appetite, no longer enjoying things that used to bring them pleasure, difficulty sleeping, confusion, nervousness, avoidance behavior, weight loss or gain, and inability to make simple decisions.
9. Depression in the elderly is not normal: As the caregiver to a senior, you may have been led to believe that depression tends to set in as we age. It’s just not true. Seniors should be able to live every day to the fullest and enjoy each stage of life. Being upset once in a while is normal. Constantly living in a depressed state is not normal regardless of age.
10. Double check they are taking medication properly: As a caregiver to a senior taking multiple medications, don’t assume they are taking them correctly. The reality is that many medications look alike or have similar names. A good idea is to get a pill organizer that separates medication by days of the week. Write out specific instructions and even watch them take their meds when you can.
Dr. Vinay Sarange is a psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry.