Have you ever been in the situation where you suddenly found yourself the sole caregiver of a loved one that suffers from a debilitating disease? Perhaps you went from being a career professional, a student, or even a stay at home parent, to becoming solely responsible for the care and wellness of another individual.
Almost overnight, your entire family dynamic has changed as your loved one moves in with you and requires nearly round the clock care. This commonly involves constant supervision to ensure that they do not injure themselves or others. Common caretaker responsibilities include assistance with almost every facet of their life from eating, bathing, dressing, medication upkeep, doctor’s appointments, and countless other day-to-day responsibilities.
If this sounds like you, fear not, you are not alone! Currently, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are more than fifteen million caretakers in the United States right now, many of which provide care for patients that suffer from Alzheimer’s or Dementia related diseases (Alzheimer's Association).With the current influx of patients opting to forego nursing home care in favor of being cared for by their family members, this can sometimes create a great deal of stress for caregivers as they work to maintain the balance between caring for their loved one, while still meeting their own family and possibly work responsibilities.
Caregivers of any sort are faced with many challenges, but when caring for an Alzheimer’s or Dementia patient, sometimes the challenges can prove to be increasingly difficult, and if not corrected, caregivers can be faced with an overwhelming level of stress that can prove to be too much to handle. The first step to treating stress among caregivers is to be able to effectively recognize it.
Although stress can appear in different ways to each person, the most common emotional symptoms of stress are increased levels of anxiety, frustration, and depression. Physically, this can be manifested in having trouble sleeping at night, loss of appetite, increased headaches, or even chest pain (Symptoms of Stress, 2013). Left unchecked, according to The American Institute of Stress, high stress levels can lead to a host of problems such as high blood pressure, increased risk of sudden stroke or heart attack, even possibly being more susceptible to certain forms of cancer (The American Institute of Stress, 2013).
Caregivers that find themselves stressed or experiencing any of these problems need to recognize the need to take time to properly care for themselves. I can hear many of you saying now, that sounds like a great idea, but who has time to take a break? This is a full time commitment! The key is understanding that stressed out caregivers are unhealthy caregivers, and unhealthy caregivers cannot provide the best level of care for their family members, much less themselves.
The next step to treating stress is coming up with a plan of action and sticking to it. One of the easiest methods to reduce stress and take time for yourself is to set boundaries with your loved one in terms of time limits. Commonly, Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients get confused very easily which leads to their need to be reassured multiple times every day, and in some cases they fear being left alone, even if it is just in the other room. Even with good intentions, one person, no matter how hard they may try, cannot be on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. You will burn out and will not be a help to anyone that way. Instead, by setting time limits with your loved one, you are able to effectively balance their need for companionship with your own family and time for yourself.
In certain cases, your loved one may require supervision constantly to ensure they are not a threat to themselves or others. This is where the caregiver must enlist support. Having an effective support system is crucial to being an effective caregiver. Caregivers may find support from other family members, friends, or even a senior sitting service. Whoever it is, make sure they are fully up to date on the situation and can fill in for you if you need a few hours away to yourself…and believe me…you are going to need it!
Lastly, look around your area for local Alzheimer’s Association chapters or caregiver support groups. Both of these avenues can prove to be an invaluable asset in your journey as a caretaker as they can provide further education related to the disorder or disease your loved one is facing, community referrals to programs that may assist you, or even caregiver support groups that meet monthly and address concerns and issues that caregivers commonly face. If your area does not currently have a caregiver support group in place, do not get discouraged. With more individuals becoming caregivers each day, chances are there are plenty of caregivers in your area that you just have not connected with yet. Be open to connecting with local churches and even home health agencies that could potentially put you in touch with other families that are going through similar situations you are. Above all else, remember the primary rule of being an effective caregiver; take time to care for yourself, because an unhealthy caregiver leads to an unhealthy patient.
By putting in place these simple strategies and utilizing the help of a support system, caregivers can ensure that they are not forgetting to take care of themselves in hopes to reduce stress. In addition, when caregivers take the time to connect with others that are in similar situations, they are able to build relationships and cultivate friendships that have a comradery that is unique to caregivers because they share many of the same experiences. For many caregivers, the friendships they find through support groups prove to last a lifetime and enrich both the caregivers and the patient’s lives.