UPDATED 7/1/2019 Are you caring for a loved one, neighbor, friend, or child with an illness, injury, or disability? More than 65 million Americans are in this “informal caregiver” category. Perhaps you’re taking care of aging parents. While rewarding, it’s often unpaid and stressful. The stress survival guide will help you avoid caregiver burnout.
Taking care of the caregiver
With the numerous recent healthcare changes, shorter hospital stays, and an aging population, more and more people are finding themselves caring for their loved ones in different and more profound ways than they ever expected.
Unpaid caregivers provide 80-percent of long-term care in the United States, according to the Office on Women’s Health, US Department of Health and Human Services. So, who are these caregivers?
- 61% are women
- Most are middle-aged, but 13% are 65 and older
- 59% have jobs in addition to caring for another person
Women are more at risk of experiencing caregiver stress. That’s when the emotional and physical demands of taking care of someone else begins to impact your life.
If you have another job, as the majority of caregivers do, you’re trying to squeeze in medical appointments, calls with doctors, running errands and providing support during your workday or downtime leaving little time for anything else in your life.
More than half of employed female caregivers make work-related changes as a result of caregiving. This may include going in late, leaving early, working fewer hours, and turning down promotions. That’s why it’s one of the 4 healthcare trends that should keep all healthcare stakeholders up at night.
Caring for someone you love, or family caregiving, can be one of the most rewarding experiences you may ever have. However, it can also negatively affect and stress even the most resilient individuals. This group often finds itself under its own emotional and physical strain, as a result of the changes to areas like family and other relationship dynamics, daily schedule, household finances, etc.
A TED Institute video puts the staggering toll of unpaid caregiving into perspective because often they’re untold stories. As an unpaid caregiver, you don’t collect a check. You also don’t get recognized or acknowledged by the medical system, and you pay a high price.
Caregiver stress symptoms
What are the signs of caregiver stress?
- feeling “bone tired” most/all of the time
- feeling overwhelmed
- feeling uncharacteristically irritable or irritable about things that were never bothersome in the past
- sleeping too much or too little
- gaining or losing a lot of weight
- losing interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
These factors often lead caregivers to become depressed and anxious. In addition, caregiver stress can sidetrack your physical activity and nutrition goals. In turn, you may experience serious health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
The number of caregivers who suffer as a result of their situations is significant. The Family Caregiver Alliance found one in ten caregivers (11%) believe their physical health got worse as a result of their focus on caring for someone else. Mental health also takes a toll with depression a common health consequence.
The longer you care for someone, the higher chance you’ll feel the stress in years two and three if you don’t already feel it after the first year of taking care of an aging parent or loved one.
Depending on the level of care needed, you may even experience caregiver burnout. If you’re feeling burned out with life, use these tools to ignite your internal flame and find inspiration again.
So, are you experiencing caregiver stress? Use the free Family Caregiver Distress Assessment Tool to measure your stress level and the impact the care you’re providing is impact you.
You won’t be able to properly address caregiver stress until you understand how it affects you emotionally, physically, and financially.
Self-care for caregivers
If you’re suffering from stress, the last thing you may think you have time for is to take care of yourself. After all, that’s how you ended up feeling potentially lonely, frustrated, or depressed.
However, you need to find the time to take care of you. If the person you’re caring for can’t vocalize that, they probably would if they were in better health. After all, you both love each other and want what’s best for the other person.
Taking care of you is essential, although it’s hard when you feel a loved one has greater needs. But, you’ll find you’re more effective at the caregiving role when you’re not stressed, burnt out, or dealing with your own emotional or physical problems.
At the end of the day, you need to manage caregiver stress. A healthy lifestyle is even a powerful first step toward managing stress. If you’d like to stay on track throughout the year, try the “Be Less Stressed” guidebook. It’s full of resources to help you make stress management a priority throughout the year.
Here are a few other recommendations for chipping away at caregiving-related stress, and still finding happiness in your life.
- Take time for yourself and find an outlet like mindfulness.
- Practice acceptance.
- Focus on the positive side of things.
- Be grateful.
- Ask for help
- Join a support group.
- Consider a family medical leave, if possible.
Managing caregiver stress with mindfulness
Second, take time for yourself. This may be hard to do, but it’s crucial. You’re an important part of the caregiving equation and need care too. After all, how can you take care of someone else if you don’t take care of yourself? It’s not a luxury to care for yourself, but a necessity.
Take a walk, call a friend, or simply just breathe and “be.”
Mindfulness is a great way to focus on your breathing and manage caregiver stress. Joan Griffiths Vega teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and runs a workshop for caregivers.
She focuses on the S.T.O.P Technique. You have a choice in how you respond to stress. So she encourages you to:
S: Stop what you’re doing.
T: Take a breath and focus on it.
O: Observe how you feel.
P: Proceed with finding an outlet for your stress.
With mindfulness, you focus on the present rather than worrying about the past and the future. When you’re caring for someone, the future is uncertain. You may long for the past where these worries about the future didn’t exist. Get out of that state, because the present situation needs your attention.
Mindfulness is a proven way to ease stress, which improves your emotional and physical well-being.
Focusing on your breath can be done in as little as five minutes a day. These are great ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.
If you need to escape for a minute, watch the 12 journeys to add inspiration back to your life.
Accepting “being a caregiver”
It’s hard to watch a loved one suffer, especially when it’s long term with a chronic disease, serious injury, or terminal medical condition.
You may be in denial or afraid to accept the medical facts, diagnosis, or prognosis. When you’re a caregiver, you have to practice acceptance.
At some point, though, you have to accept it. It will take practice. Focus on what you can control. Accept that there are things you cannot change no matter how organized you are or how hard you try.
Use these techniques to say “yes” to the life you have rather than wanting something different.
Once you focus on stress management and reflect on all your blessings, you’ll begin to see that there is a positive side to the care you’re providing. Look to the positive sides to find inspiration to keep going and happiness with your life.
While you may face financial, physical, and emotional effects of caregiving, don’t dismiss the rewarding factors of it too. The National Poll on Healthy Aging by the University of Michigan found while the majority find it challenging, the majority also feel fulfilled. In the study, 85-percent of family caregivers called it a rewarding experience, with 45-percent calling it “very rewarding.”
Despite all the stress, the extended one on one time leads to valuable memories. You may not realize it at the time, but if your loved one passes away, you’ll likely find comfort in the care you provided and the memories you formed.
It also provides a new perspective and causes you to think about your own life. For example, if you care for an aging parent, it may have you re-thinking retirement, long-term care insurance, or financial planning.
When you’re dealing with anger, stress, or overwhelm, it’s often about perspective. This is not to say you should dismiss your feelings because they’re real. However, dealing with them also means looking at them in a new light with a new lens. Shifting your way of thinking, from negative to positive, can have a tremendous impact on you and the person you’re helping. Changing your perspective will allow you to find happiness every day.
There’s probably no greater gift you can give someone than caring for them. Being there to lift them up when they’re emotionally and physically struggling is satisfying.
Take a gratitude journey
As a caregiver, you’re practicing gratitude every day. You’re showing another person how grateful you are to have them in your life by making daily sacrifces to get them the best possible care. Sometimes, this is done at your expense physically, emotionally, and mentally.
While the person you’re caring for may not express their gratitude to you often enough, they likely feel it.
Certified Professional Coach and author of Gratitude Heals, Linda Roszak Burton, has researched and personally experienced the benefits of gratitude. When you make gratitude a focus, you’ll both benefit from the healing benefits of it. Roszak Burton found gratitude fosters better mental and emotional health and well-being for both caregivers and the ill family member.
She writes that it blocks toxic emotions. So, it’ll suppress feelings of anger because you can’t experience anger and gratefulness at the same time. If you’re feeling anger, gratitude is just one way to manage it. Try these other anger management techniques. Make it a priority before anger takes over your life.
Focus on the positive aspects of your choice to be a caregiver. You’re improving the spirits of your loved one, creating more memories with them, and improving their care and spirits. By realizing all you’re offering them and being grateful that you can offer such help, you’re finding gratitude.
Think about how grateful you are that the person you’re caring for is in your life. You’re likely caring for them because of the lasting impact they’ve had in your life.
Also, don’t forget about yourself. Appreciate you and all that you’re providing your loved one. Self-gratitude is just as important.
It may be difficult to find something you’re grateful for when you’re in the depths of caregiving, but there are blessings right in front of you. Celebrate what makes you unique, and the value you bring to the situation and your life outside of caregiving.
It’s likely you stopped celebrating your own life achievements and milestones because someone else’s life and future have become the focus of your own life. Plus, the topic of conversation with others is likely your loved one rather than how you’re doing.
There’s tremendous value in helping a loved one. The economic value of family caregiving in the United States is bigger than Medicaid and as valuable as Walmart, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. So, don’t sell yourself short.
Find time to get out with friends even if it’s just once a month. It will help you normalize your life again and feel less isolated even if it’s just temporary.
Take time to celebrate you, and all the things that make you unique.
Caring for a family member can be a hugely rewarding experience, but it can also be incredibly stressful.
Help for caregivers
When you’re providing care that’s unpaid, feelings of loneliness are common. You isolate yourself from others due to the time demands. So, your care is often invisible. Some experts call people like you, an “invisible, isolated army.”
Caregiving can be for the short term, but often it continues for years or decades. This is often the case for the “sandwich generation” – kids on one side and aging parents on the other.
Often caregivers feel they can’t ask for help and that no one can care for their loved one as well as they can. As a result of this well-meaning but stress-inducing mindset, they may not take advantage of resources such as meal delivery, respite care, and home care assistance.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help or saying yes when someone offers it. Family and friends often want to provide support but aren’t sure where to start. Allow them the opportunity to feel they are making a difference. Identify things they can do to help ease your burden, if only for a little while.
When you become so focused on the person for whom you’re caring, you lose sight of your health. You may not realize you’re also suffering and may be accumulating serious risks to your well-being.
Caregiver support group
There are resources out there to help. However, the National Poll on Healthy Aging found only 1 in 4 caregivers took advantage of these tools. Yet, only 41-percent expressed interested in those resources.
Once again, it goes back to taking time for yourself. Seek out the support and help you need to care for an aging parent, sick child, or spouse.
Even if you don’t want to talk with others about your situation, seek out resources. If mindfulness interests you, Joan Griffiths Vega has videos, articles and other tools to help you incorporate this into your life as a caregiver.
Caregiver Family Leave
As more people find themselves in the family caregiver category, employers are updating their benefits and policies. Talk with your human resources department about your options.
The Family Medical and Leave Act or FMLA isn’t just for new parents or the treatment of your illness. It allows caregivers time off to focus on their parent’s medical needs too, in addition to their spouse or children.
Congress is working on a paid family medical leave. That would allow federal employees to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a sick child or family member among other absences.
With private companies, paid family leave varies. Only 17-percent of civilian workers have access to it, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
In recent years, more than 100 companies revamped their benefits packages to offer new or enhanced family leave policies, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. As more employees become caregivers too, companies realize there are benefits to offering better leave policies. It improves gender equity, it shows they care too, improves your health, improves morale, and retention of employees.
Remember, it’s important to guard your health and well-being to help others sustain theirs. Think of it like an airplane. You’re instructed to put your oxygen mask on first, so you’re in a better position to help others. The same is true for caregiving.
How do you keep stress from overtaking your life?