The Give & Take of Caregiving
After you’ve flown on a plane a few times, the flight attendants’ pre-flight speech and gestures become ingrained in your brain.
“Buckle up . . . your seat can be used as a flotation device . . . here are the exit rows . . . in the event the cabin loses pressure, secure your oxygen mask before helping others.” That last one always confused me. It’s meant for parents of younger children and caregivers of individuals who cannot put the mask on themselves. But who would put their mask on before securing their kid’s mask? It seems so counterintuitive to not protect the ones you love first!
After you’ve flown on a plane a few times, the flight attendants’ pre-flight speech and gestures become ingrained in your brain. “Buckle up . . . your seat can be used as a flotation device . . . here are the exit rows . . . in the event the cabin loses pressure, secure your oxygen mask before helping others.” That last one always confused me. It’s meant for parents of younger children and caretakers of individuals who cannot put the mask on themselves. But who would put their mask on before securing their kid’s mask? It seems so counterintuitive to not protect the ones you love first!
The reason they ask this of us, is simple: If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of the ones you love. While it can be a very rewarding experience to take care of a family member, it can also quickly become stressful. In fact, the AARP estimates that caregiving spouses between 66 and 96 years old who are feeling a mental or emotional strain have a risk of dying that is 63% higher than those in that age group who aren’t caregivers.
The risk, however, isn’t reserved for those over 66 years of age. Baby boomers that have assumed a caregiving role for a parent while also juggling a job and raising a child face an increased risk for depression, chronic illness, and decline in quality of life.
Caring for a family member can be an absolute emotional roller coaster. Exhaustion, worry, managing resources, and continuous care demands are all enormously stressful to the individual providing care. Caregivers are also more likely to have a chronic illness, especially high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and a higher probability of being overweight.
Despite the scary statistics, family caregivers of any age report having trouble doing the things that we humans need to be healthy: sleeping, eating healthy, staying in bed when they’re ill, taking the time to see a doctor, and exercising regularly. So why do those who deal with illness face to face, who see the after effects of neglecting the body, make life choices that could lead down that exact same road? In order to understand the why, it’s important to take a look at the mental and emotional factors which can lead caregivers to not take care of themselves.
One major factor is whether or not the caretaker volunteered to care for the individual. Oftentimes if the caretaker feels they have no choice in the matter, the chances are greater that they will experience strain, distress, and even resentment. This can especially happen in families where a member needs care. Instead of seeking help or other resources, families adopt a “We take care of our own” mentality that can create added stress for those providing care. For children taking care of a parent, there is often a feeling of responsibility for the health of the parent as well; this can undoubtedly add excess stress and anxiety for the caretaker.
Another major factor deterring caretakers from seeking out care for themselves is comparing what seems like their “minor” needs to the needs of the person for whom they are caring. Caretakers can feel selfish trying to seek out care, especially if they are the sole caretaker of an individual. When dealing with chronic illness in others everyday, symptoms like a cough or fatigue can seem insignificant comparatively. This guilt can often lead caretakers to believing that they are being selfish in going to the doctor over something like a cold. All of these things coupled together can be a recipe for self destruction in a caretaker.
Another aspect of caring for an individual is the emotional toll it takes on a person to provide care for another, especially when providing care for family members. Sometimes people can take on the responsibility of caring for another with the hope of healing a relationship. If healing does not occur, the caretaker may feel regret and discouragement.
Your coping abilities are another large factor of how well you can deal with the stresses of caretaking. How you coped with stress in the past predicts how you will cope now. Identify your current coping strengths so that you can build on them. Some caregiving situations are just more stressful than others. For example, caring for a person with dementia is often more stressful than caring for someone with a physical limitation. How you cope with that stress will be important in maintaining your overall health.
Caretakers often end up eating meals that are quicker, rather than healthier ones, due to the overall unpredictable nature of the task. Given the situation, some may also find themselves using this unhealthy food to cope with the stresses of caregiving. Unhealthy meals, coupled with stress eating and a lack of exercise, can further compound or ultimately create health issues. This is why finding healthy coping mechanisms like working out allows you to relieve stress and emotional buildup, while also helping to maintain your health.
Caretakers should also seek out resources to alleviate some of the burden and create some time to take care of themselves. Medicare, Hospice Foundation of America, Caregiver Action Network, and other organizations have options that can provide some help. Even if it’s just having someone come once a week for a couple of hours, that’s two hours to go to the gym and work off some anxiety, or to make yourself a decent, healthy meal. It’s a two-hour break for you to regroup, relax, and focus on yourself for a little bit.
In writing this article, I found it astonishing how many people with whom I spoke had provided or were currently providing care for another person, particularly in my discussions with members of FitMe Wellness. I was blown away by the depth of insight that many members had about the hardships and the rewards of taking care of another, especially someone that you love.
One member told me about taking care of their father. Their brother, who usually provided care while the member was at work, was unavailable this day. So the father called the member at work, urging that he needed to go to the bathroom. After rushing from work to make it there in time, the member returned home to find that the father had not been able to contain himself any longer, and made quite a mess. The member stated that they remembered being a bit horrified, saddened, and overwhelmed at first. But then, as if divinely inspired, they just had to laugh about it.
Their laughter was triggered by the realization of a need for perspective. They could choose to treat this incident as if it were a scary and deeply serious matter, probably creating more stress in the process, or they could choose to laugh about it, and see the reversal of roles as something that’s funny. The member concluded their story by conveying to me that learning to laugh about some of this stuff and not taking these situations so seriously were they keys to maintaining mental health, especially while taking care of a loved one.
Physical health is very important in caretaking as well, especially in those who are over 65. A caretaker isn’t going to be of much use if they have a hard time moving themselves. Greg Georgis, owner and founder of FitMe Wellness, saw this seemingly frail older man putting himself through what seemed like painful workouts; he would come in for about an hour at a time and work his butt off, doing calisthenics, weights, and cardio. The member would do floor exercises, even though the process of getting down on the floor and back up again seemed a long, arduous process, slowed by joints stiffened by age.
One day, Greg finally went up to commend the member on his perseverance and find out what drove him. The member related to Greg that his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s and that he was her primary caretaker. So when the member had the opportunity for some help to come in and provide care for his wife, he would come to the FitMe to make sure he kept himself strong and healthy, for her. How could he provide care for her, if he fell and couldn’t get himself back up? Or worst case, if he was physically unable to help her up if she were to fall? Just like in the oxygen mask example, he knew that he needed to put that oxygen mask on himself in order to provide quality care for the one he loves.
The simple but heartbreaking fact about caretaking is that you can’t control the progression of chronic illness of someone for whom you care, but you can be there for them. In order to provide quality care for another, you have to be able to care for yourself. Allowing yourself to deteriorate alongside the one you love does no one any good, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities in caretaking, seek help! Don’t just grin and bear it, thinking that you’re the only one in the world who cares enough to help. There are agencies in the area that have the resources to help, so utilize them to make sure that you as the caregiver are giving yourself the care that you need. Only then can you truly provide the care that they need.
By Matt Bralick | FitMe Wellness