Many of us care for elderly parents, a spouse, child, or other family member with a chronic condition. It can be challenging. Even without a defined illness, the caregiver role is familiar to many of us. Take, for example, parents, especially moms, who often juggle competing demands such as work and their own concerns including mental health issues. Caregiving is a universal circumstance many of us navigate throughout our lives.
We care for others, willingly and with love, such as being there for your children, friends, work colleagues, and community. At the same time, doing so can bring unexpected and ever-changing demands that at times can feel depleting, overwhelming, frustrating. Taking care of yourself – and making sure your needs are met – while caring for others is vital.
We Do What Needs To Be Done
In her recently published memoir, Amy Bloom talks about her delay in having her husband tested for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She copes (or not) with his new behaviors that don’t make sense for many months until a neurologist sees him and the diagnosis is made. She says she wishes she had known months earlier why he was acting as he did. Presumably, it might have eased some of her confusion and misunderstanding of his behavior and emotional state. Perhaps she could have reached out to the many support groups for family members of Alzheimer’s patients for help.
Not Knowing What To Expect Can Be Hard
What she needed was support in helping her learn her new role as a spousal caregiver. She had instinctively taken on this role to ensure that the memory and cognitive deterioration of her spouse would not put him in any physical harm months before his diagnosis. But until the diagnosis was made and a road map of what to expect, more or less, was offered by the neurologist, she, like any other newbie caregiver, was given no help at all. (And indeed, very little at the time of the diagnosis.) Not knowing what to expect can make coping even harder. And the demands of caregiving can be isolating.
Being A Caregiver Can Be Isolating
There are support groups for just about every type of medical problem, and they are often available both for the patient and family caregiver. The advice offered to the caregiver is sensible and necessary: make sure you take care of your emotional and physical needs. However, the novice caregiver may need more individualized help. He is like someone learning to ride a bike. Someone has to be there to hold the bike and run with it until the new rider is balanced and able to stay on and pedal. So too, someone from a support group should be available to offer personalized emotional and practical support. This may include helping the new caregiver anticipate problems that will arise, such as dealing with medical insurance, finding home aides, dealing with the emotional fluctuations of the patient, and the caregiver’s own emotional needs. Someone has to assure the caregiver that her own emotional responses to this new situation are normal, because love is now mingled with anger, optimism with despair, and frustration sometimes overwhelms the caregiver’s patience. Bloom finally seeks help from a therapist, and is relieved to learn that her anger at the situation—and sometimes at her husband—is normal.
It’s OK To Feel What You Feel
Knowing what to expect doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the emotions that will come up. For example, you may experience the five steps of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and keep cycling through them over time.
Sometimes these emotions can drive us to overeat, not follow an eating plan we want to, or do other things that are not loving towards ourselves. Don’t get down on yourself! The snacks and the meal plans are there for you, and serotonin can definitely help.
Also, remember, you can still be a loving, devoted, and responsible caregiver even if you have these emotions. Be kind to yourself and know these emotions are normal.
The Value Of An Understanding Ear
In an ideal situation, someone could guide, inform, reassure, and help with problems and remove the guilt the caregiver may be experiencing because of negative feelings toward the patient. My friend told me that when her husband’s medical problem was identified, a nurse warned her that when he was in pain, he might become angry, and angry with her, specifically. “I thank her silently every time this happens, and it does,” she told me. “It makes his change in mood understandable.“
Sometimes, serendipity provides an experienced caregiver to help a newcomer in this role. A neighbor, relative, or someone in a Yoga or meditation class will come forth to offer help. This happened in my small neighborhood when two women who were already taking care of their spouses offered to have coffee with a third whom they knew was having a hard time taking care of her husband. Sharing experiences, information about sources of professional help (such as an occupational or physical therapist), laughing together over situations that privately may have brought tears, and being willing to hear each other’s complaints had a significant effect on reducing stress for all of them.
Find The Type Of Support That Works For You
Support groups for people in a similar situation can be really helpful, but it may be hard to find a suitable group, logistics may be difficult, or such meetings could wind up being yet another obligation. Virtual meetings, either group or individual, are one answer. Meeting regularly with family and friends can be really helpful. And another form of support is simply knowing who you can reach out to in those moments when you need to vent, cry, or have someone to recognize all you’re doing – and actually reaching out to them even if you’re hesitant to do so. People want to support you, and are there to tell you, “I know what you’re going through.”
You can also be your own support system. Mental health professionals can help you ease the burden and help you cope. If you yourself experience mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, it’s important to address them directly.
Time is known as a great healer, not just the passing of time, but actual moments that represent space in your life for you. Time in nature, walking or doing some other physical movement, engaging in a hobby or book you enjoy, listening to music, taking a bath, or simply doing nothing.
Have self-compassion for your emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion and know that it’s all normal. You deserve a high level of care, whatever that looks like, and the more you take care of yourself, the more you’ll have to give to your loved ones.
If you’d like support and guidance to manage stress and emotions, reach your weight loss goals, and find more joy along the way, we can help: we’re here for you! We invite you to sign up for a complimentary consultation to learn more.