Caring for an aging, sick or mentally ill family member is an incredibly selfless and energy-consuming task, even in the best of circumstances. Approximately 53 million Americans (or one in five) are considered caregivers to a loved one or family member in need. November is a time we recognize caregivers’ efforts and find ways to celebrate and support them in this difficult undertaking.
When we use the term “caregiver,” we may think of a son or daughter taking care of an elderly parent. In reality, there are many different types of caregiving scenarios. It may be a parent taking care of a mentally ill young or adult child. As parents age, children, many times, are placed into the position of caring for an elderly mother or father, which can become more difficult with the prevalence of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. If a loved one such as a spouse, sibling or close friend is sick with a severe chronic or terminal illness such as cancer or ALS, they also require full-time care. Scheduling doctor’s appointments, refilling prescriptions, offering a listening ear and helping in everyday functioning all fall under a caregiver’s umbrella of responsibility.
Caregivers need to care for themselves, too
What many caregivers may not understand is that by giving themselves over to the act of helping a loved one, their own mental health can begin to decline. This manifests as feeling burned out and not having time for any self-care practices. It may look like feeling guilty for having someone else watch a beloved mother, sister or child while enjoying a much-needed vacation. It may even mean experiencing depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which may increase when caring for someone with a mental illness. If the caregiver is more economically vulnerable, having the resources to continue care can be of huge financial stress as well. The stresses all add up.
It’s incredibly important, then, that those who care for another for any amount of time take the necessary steps to engage in self-care. Some reminders to ensure you take care of yourself, too, include:
- Get enough sleep.
- Exercise regularly.
- Take time to do things you enjoy, guilt free.
- Take time for yourself to decompress with calming or relaxing activities.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Talk to someone, such as a therapist, about any emotional distress you experience.
Isn’t that being selfish?
Perhaps the most difficult task for a caregiver is the simple act of letting go. They may have feelings of guilt when taking time for themselves or feel worried about their loved one being in good hands. However, there are some wonderful organizations in our community that can be of great service to caregivers and their aging or sick loved ones alike.
Much like finding a babysitter for a young child, finding the right person to offer respite care for your loved one in a safe environment is crucial. Some organizations offer matching services or chances to interview caregivers. By hiring a respite caregiver, you don’t have to worry that your loved one will feel isolated or alone. Instead, you can rest easy knowing they are having enriching social experiences while being taken care of with compassion and kindness.
How do we help the caregivers in our lives?
If you know someone acting as a caregiver to a loved one, it’s incredibly important to let them know you support them. Recognize these people in your life and offer what assistance you can. This may mean sitting with their loved one while they take some time for themselves or bringing dinner so they don’t have to worry about making a meal. Make sure to continue including them in social activities so they don’t begin to feel isolated or too busy to keep up with friendships.
If you are a caregiver, ask for help and assemble a support team to stop you from experiencing excess stress or mental decline. Honest conversations are also important, as you need to be up front about your needs for self-care and time to enjoy your life. Caregivers are strong, devoted and compassionate members of our society, and we are happy to honor them this November for National Family Caregivers Month! Thank you for all you do to help the aging, sick and mentally ill people in your life.