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Caregiving

5 Tips for Caregivers to Consider

Struggling as a caregiver during the pandemic? Here's how to cope.

Key points

  • Caregiving can expose individuals to ongoing trauma and loss that they need to acknowledge.
  • Taking notes can help caregivers organize their thoughts and make difficult decisions.
  • Caregivers need to learn how to asking for help when they need it and engage in proper self-care for the sake of their well-being.

Caregiving places unique stresses on one's emotional and physical wellness. As the primary caregiver for my (now late) husband, I remember feeling like I was trying to push back the ocean waves with a teaspoon each day, knowing how and when my husband's life would likely end and yet trying to find simple, good ways to provide for his well-being.

Kristin Meekhof
Source: Kristin Meekhof

Caregivers face their own emotional wounds from providing intense support, and often these get overlooked. For example, I can remember when a hospice worker told me I was suffering from “anticipatory grief.” As a clinical social worker, I recognized this term, and still I shook my head in a bit of disbelief because, as a caregiver, I knew I was experiencing losses each day. Grief was ever-present, and I knew it wasn't just anticipatory.

My grief as a caregiver began when a lab result confirmed my husband had advanced cancer. Watching his physical body decline at a pace faster than I could comprehend made me heartsick. One minute, he was walking without assistance; the next minute, he tripped and nearly fell to his knees. The near-fall rattled his self-confidence, knowing his legs were unable to provide support. I grieved for his physical losses because they were very real and significant.

This type of intimate grief is painful, and sometimes simply acknowledging the pain is what is needed to provide clarity into an emotionally turbulent day. It is hard to heal what can't be acknowledged.

The tips I'm providing below are written with the hope that both caregivers and professionals will understand the unique stressors caregiving presents:

1. Understand losses are ongoing.

The feelings of overwhelm and sadness might be related to your grief. The losses are multiple and vary in the degree of suffering they may bring. For example, not being able to attend certain events due to the pandemic is something with which others may be able to sympathize, so you may feel more support with this situation. Other losses, such as not being able to eat certain foods with your loved one or not having the freedom to go to the market without having to worry about rushing home because you're needed, are also real.

2. Consider if what you're experiencing is trauma.

As a caregiver, you're exposed to extremely difficult situations, often life-threatening, on a continual basis, and with no break. It is traumatic to know you're celebrating your last holiday with a loved one or helping them pre-plan their funeral. Sometimes, the body's response to trauma is to stop and shut down.

Your mind may not be able to function at an optimal level, making it difficult to recall certain facts, such as a birth date. You may notice trouble focusing on a routine task. Seeking out professional mental health support with someone can help you better understand your experience and also give you tips for coping with ongoing trauma.

3. Begin taking notes.

As a caregiver, you're making serious decisions all day long, and many of those choices you're making for the very first time. If you're struggling with short-term memory or having trouble concentrating, consider writing notes to yourself (even using your phone to record them) about your day or the person you're taking care of.

During my husband's medical crisis, I kept a journal of our appointments, phone calls, his symptoms, and other conversations. If someone referenced something, and I couldn't recall it, I would refer back to my journal. The notes helped me for various reasons.

4. Practice self-care.

Self-care may be the last thing on your list, but it should be one of the first things for helping your overall wellness. Self-care can go beyond creating a small ritual of listening to a relaxing playlist. Self-care can also mean eating healthy and making choices to support your own well-being.

While my husband was getting palliative care, I remember I asked a friend to stay with him while I ran a quick errand to our bank (this was in 2007, before smartphones). While in the car, I looked down and noticed I was wearing my pajamas. Putting my husband's needs before mine was routine, but I also realized at that traffic light that I had abandoned all self-care. Taking care of my own simple, good needs meant I was better able to assist him as well.

5. Seek and accept help.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for caregivers to do is to admit that things are at times unmanageable and that getting help is necessary. This help may be in the form of professional mental health or informal, such as with meals. During this pandemic, it is especially stressful having to do many things with limited resources, so if someone asks what they can do to help, consider saying, "We do appreciate small meals that can be dropped off," or "We do need help with grocery delivery." It is OK to be specific and understand people feel appreciated when they know they are helping you.

Letting go of the things we can't control is one of the most painful aspects of caregiving, and remembering what we can control is how to maintain tenderness, courage, and the ability to heal.

References

Meekhof, K., & Windell, J. (2015). A Widow's Guide to Healing. IL: Sourcebooks.

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