Most of us lead frantic lives. That’s the nature of the world today. When you add to that the job—for it is a high-stress job no matter how lovingly we do it—of caring for an aging loved one, it’s no wonder that some of the members of the Caregiver Forum say they often daydream about running away from it all.
Many of us belong to the sandwich generation; we are caring for aging parents while raising our own children. Back in my caregiving days, I cared for a total of seven elders along with my two sons. Talk about a sandwich—mine was a whopper! Yes, there were times when I wondered how I could possibly keep it up. There were certainly times when I would have loved to run away from all my responsibilities.
Obviously, we are responsible, caring people who wouldn’t do that, but we can’t simply ignore these urges to return to “normal” life. Our feelings of exhaustion and stress are valid, even if we feel guilty about them. Don’t add to your burden by beating yourself up over these thoughts. Instead of resigning yourself to feeling powerless or ashamed, learn how to take an active role in fighting caregiver burnout, minimizing stress and improving your mental health.
How to Minimize the Stress of Caregiving
If you feel like you’d love an escape from caregiving but can never find the time or energy to get away, then start small. Attend a yoga class, go to lunch with some friends, take a walk around the block or even engage in a little retail therapy. Above all, prioritize the categories below. They may seem obvious, but ensuring that your basic needs are met will help make the tough times easier to get through.
- Talk it out on a forum, in a support group or with friends.
- Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
- Get some sleep, even if you have to hire in-home care to be with your loved one throughout the night or while you take a nap. You can’t function without a basic amount of quality sleep.
- Indulge in diversions, such as movies, music, books, TV shows and hobbies you enjoy.
How to Recover From Caregiver Burnout
Once your stress reaches a certain level, you are in burnout territory. If you just can’t shake that feeling of wanting to run away, then you’re going to need to take some bigger steps to improve your quality of life. Feeling powerless, depressed and unable to function normally is no way to live.
- Get a complete physical and be honest with your doctor about your feelings about your life. He or she may prescribe medication for depression or anxiety.
- Ask for a referral to a mental health professional like a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist.
- Seek respite care. It doesn’t matter if you can only manage an hour of respite each week; every bit of time away from caregiving will help you recuperate.
- Set realistic boundaries and learn to enforce them. It is perfectly acceptable to say “no.”
A Cautionary Tale About Self-Care
I know. I know. You are thinking, “When will I do all these things and how will I pay for them?” That was my response to such suggestions years ago. I laughed at the idea of finding time to go to support group meetings. It is so easy to fall into the rut of making excuses and prioritizing other peoples’ needs above your own. The good news is that there are many more resources for caregivers available now and they are much more accessible. For example, computers, the internet, and sources of information, advice and friendship like AgingCare are such a blessing. I didn’t have that kind of support at my fingertips during most of my active caregiving years.
I skipped mammograms during that time and was lucky. A friend of mine skipped hers while caregiving, too. When she finally went in for imaging, she received a stage II breast cancer diagnosis. It was amazing how she found time to take care of herself then. Her cancer treatment took far more time and money than the annual mammograms she skipped and the lumpectomy she likely could have had if the cancer had been caught earlier.
During my heavy-duty caregiving years, I actually skipped most of my own doctor’s appointments. Again, I was lucky, but I did develop rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that causes pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints. Autoimmune diseases are very common among caregivers. Studies have shown that the chronic stress caregivers face can impair immune function and lead to a vast array of negative health effects. RA does run in my family, so I may have developed it eventually anyway. But I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten RA if I’d given myself more down time while caregiving. The only thing I know for sure is that more respite time wouldn’t have hurt me, and, quite frankly, it wouldn’t have hurt my elders, either.
During those difficult years, I didn’t exercise like I did when my kids were younger. I ate junk food. I knew that these decisions weren’t wise, but I was too tired to care. My sister teases me that I now preach about what I didn’t do when I was a caregiver. And she’s right. I didn’t take care of myself very well back then. Not only did I jeopardize my physical and mental health, but my lack of self-care also affected my elders and my children. Many family caregivers get sick and even die before the people they are caring for. I am fortunate that neglecting my own needs did not have more serious consequences.
Don’t Let Caregiver Stress Go Unchecked
How much would I do differently if I knew then what I know now? I’m not sure. I admit that I am an obsessive caregiver. I care deeply about my loved ones and want the best for them. However, if I stepped into the caregiving role again today, I do think I would try to take better care of myself. I’d be on the Caregiver Forum regularly, closely following the threads that I relate to most.
I think I’d make time for those annual physicals that seem unnecessary at the time but are so very important. Additionally, I think I would be more honest with my doctor about my stress levels and emotional health. Years ago, most doctors weren’t aware of the toll that caregiving takes on the health of family caregivers, but things have changed. Research shows that an estimated 41.8 million Americans are caring for aging loved ones in 2020 and our unique experiences have become more widely covered by the media, studied by researchers, and factored into public policy decisions. Tell your doctor that you are a family caregiver. Give them the information they need to fully understand your situation and the opportunity to help you safeguard your health.
If you have more than occasional thoughts about “running away from it all,” that is a dangerous sign. Contact your Area Agency on Aging (AAA) and inquire about respite care programs, caregiver support groups, and federal, state and local resources that can help you minimize your stress levels. Remember that if you develop a physical and/or mental illness, you won’t be able to be the quality caregiver you strive to be. Worse yet, if you pass away, you won’t be around to care for the people you love.
As a veteran caregiver who has struggled with chronic stress, painful emotions and difficult care decisions, I urge you to please take these steps to minimize your stress levels. Search for and be receptive to the care and support that are out there so you can take care of yourself. Once your responsibilities and stress are more manageable, you’ll be better equipped to prioritize your own needs and see to the needs of others.