Late one night the phone rings. Your 80-year-old mother has had a heart attack and your life turns upside down, bringing worry, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, your days punctuated by one crisis after another.
More than 54 million Americans are unpaid caregivers to their family members, two-thirds of whom are women (Matthews & Blank, 2013). Pulled in multiple directions at once, many are caring for their own children, as well as older relatives, and their numbers are only increasing as the population ages.
“It is a terrible situation to have so many people to care for and yet also have work responsibilities and other commitments—as well as the need to take care of oneself and remain sane,” says Barbara Trainin Blank, author, with Barbara Matthews, of What to Do about Mama? A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members (2013, p. 43).
Blank, a professional writer accustomed to multiple deadlines, admits that, “Taking care of my mother may have been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my life” (2013, p. 34). Her mother lived 180 miles away, her brother lived much closer, but in many families the weight of caregiving often falls upon one person.
Cascading stress, sleeplessness, grief, guilt, family conflicts, anger, resentment, exhaustion, and burnout—caregiving takes its toll. Psychologist Dale Larson calls this falling into “the helper’s pit” (1993, p. 38). How to stay out of the pit? Larson says to stop blaming yourself if you feel overwhelmed by caregiving and ask instead, “What can I do about this situation?” (1993, p. 55). Drawing insights from their own experience and a wide range of caregivers, Matthews and Blank offer seven powerful strategies:
1. Start Planning. If you have older family members, begin asking about their values and wishes for the years ahead. Do they need to scale down, move into a more accessible home, closer to family members, or into a continuing care community? Determine what needs to be done and the support caregivers will need to handle these challenges. If your relative is intent on staying at home, who will pay the bills? Take this person to the doctor? Assist with meals and the activities of daily living?
2. Get Community Support. Find out about support services in your relative’s community, such as the local Agency on Aging. Check out senior services and information online such as ElderCarelink or SeniorsList.
3. Reach Out. Network with other family members and your loved one’s neighbors and friends. Check out possible support from your relative’s church or synagogue. And consider joining a caregivers’ support group to share information and personal support.
4. Take Care of Yourself. Too many caregivers wear themselves out, getting sick themselves. Watch for signs of stress and burnout. Are you:
Caregiving is a serious responsibility, but don’t become so engulfed in it that you stop being yourself.
5. Make time for a regular stress management practice. Barbara Trainin Blank says she dealt with the challenge of caregiving by walking in the mornings with a friend. Regular exercise is good for both body and mind, relieving stress, activating our immune systems, and helping dispel depression (Rethorst & Trivedi, 2013).
6. Take regular breaks. Matthews and Blank emphasize the need for regular “respite care,” especially if you are caring for your loved one’s daily needs. If possible, recruit other family members. Check out senior day services and respite referrals at the local senior center.
7. Keep up with your own interests. Blank stayed in touch with friends and participated in community groups—relieved to spend time with people who were not dealing with the chronic stress of caregiving. She continued to do some of the things she loves: creative writing projects, watching old movies, and donating to causes she believes in.
As Matthews and Blank (2013) found in their surveys of more than 30 caregivers, the key is to balance your own needs with compassionate care and realistic problem solving. How you handle the challenge of caregiving will make a major difference in many lives, including your own.
Matthews, B. G., & Blank, B. T. (2013). What to do about Mama? A guide to caring for aging family members. Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press. http://www.amazon.com/What-Do-about-Mama-Members/dp/1620063158/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1427846005&sr=1-1&keywords=what+to+do+about+mama
Larson, D. G. (1993). The helper’s journey: Working with people facing grief, loss, and life-threatening illness. Champaign, IL: Research Press.http://www.amazon.com/Helpers-Journey-Working-Life-Threatening-Illness/dp/0878223444/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428530954&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Helper%27s+Journey
Rethorst, C. D., & Trivedi, M. H. (2013). Evidence-based recommendations for the prescription of exercise for major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 19, 204-212.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.