Caring for the caregiver

Caregiving stress has many solutions. Learn resources that can nurture the nurturer.

I have recently learned first-hand that “it takes a village” when it comes to arranging and providing care for a family member who requires home care. Caregiving can be a full-time job, yet many Americans are assisting with part-time care of a disabled or chronically ill family member, while continuing to fulfill their obligations to families and employers.

I have learned quite quickly that I had little or no training for the task at hand and that is the norm for the majority of those providing home care. Most caregivers (me included) learn “on the job,” and have to rely on local resources garnered through recommendations of hospitals, physicians and others who have been in a similar situation. It is not unusual to find yourself thrust into this work suddenly, unexpectedly and with no preparation.

You are a caregiver if you are helping with the daily needs of someone other than yourself; handling finances, personal care, running errands, assisting with appointments, cooking, cleaning, preparing food or providing emotional support. This caregiving can be stressful.

If you are a caregiver, you are not alone! More than 65 million people, 29 percent of the U.S. population, provide care for a chronically ill, disabled or aged family member or friend during any given year and spend an average of 20 hours per week providing this care. Nearly a fifth of U.S. caregivers reside with the person they are caring for and more than 70 percent of caregivers are female. Most caregiving in the United States falls on the shoulders of one single caregiver.

When caring for someone else, it is easy to push aside your own needs. The stress that results from failing to take care of one’s own self-care can be responsible for many issues, including anger, sense of loss, social isolation, health issues and emotional distress. How do you know if you are experiencing signs of stress from caregiving? Take a simple self-test from the American Medical Association to see if you have symptoms associated with high levels of emotional or physical stress.

If you find you are experiencing stress, it can be helpful to make a list of all the caregiving tasks that are causing stress for you. Circle all of the items on the list over which you have NO control and resolve to let them go. Look at what is left on the list and focus on items where you have a small degree of control and tackle these items one at a time.

Often family members and friends want to be of assistance but don’t know what to do. Consider making a second list of simple tasks that others could help with. Choose a task from the list when someone calls or asks if there is something they can do to help. This list could be as simple as yard work, shopping, running to the pharmacy or making a simple meal for your family.

In addition, it is important that you learn and employ techniques that can assist with personal problems as they arise during the course of caregiving. RELAX - Alternatives to Anger and Stress Less with Mindfulness are two programs offered by Michigan State University Extension that focus on identifying steps to assist with stress that caregivers may experience.

If your caregiving experience is going to be long-term, it is important to connect with others who are experiencing similar stresses. Seek help from a caregiver support group. Many groups are available that are specific to situations or a diagnosis. Consult a hospital social worker or a physician’s office for information on groups that can provide you additional support. Explore services in your community that offer respite care, home care, hospice care and adult day care services. Web resources include The Family Caregiver Alliance, National Alliance for Caregiving and the National Family Caregivers Association.

As long as the nurturer is taking time to nurture him or herself, family caregiving can provide rewarding benefits. Just be sure to also pay attention to your own health, emotional well-being, family commitments and signs of stress.

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