Accept Your Role as a Caregiver
Recognizing and accepting this role can help caregivers recognize when they are spread too thin and be open to receive the support they need.
Sometimes it happens unknowingly. It typically begins by helping out a family member or dear friend in need of some assistance, but then over time grows into something more significant. Because it starts as a favor, few caregivers acknowledge that what that favor has turned into is a demanding, challenging, and sometimes an all-consuming role. However, it is imperative to accept that you are now in this role because that acceptance allows you to structure your own life differently. You will understand that your role as a caregiver can intrude on other facets of your life: your family, your paying job, your well being. You will further understand that the stress, long hours, loneliness and exhaustion can cause panic attacks, sleeplessness, weight gain/loss, anxiety, and depression. Understanding these possible ramifications is the key to avoiding them. Accepting your role as a caregiver is the first step in not burning out as a caregiver.
In 2004, the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP conducted a national survey. They found that 21% of adults provide care for an adult family member or friend age 18 or older and that 17% reported their health as fair or poor. It was discovered that for those doing the most intense type of caregiving, for example, caring for a patient with dementia, 35% described their health as fair or poor as a result of their role.
Stress was stated to be the most significant health issue for caregivers and being pulled in different directions is a major source of stress. Your newfound role as a caregiver can be at odds with your existing role as mom, wife, friend, sister, daughter; father, husband, brother, son, because, of course, men serve as caregivers as well. No caregiver provides their duties in a bubble separate from the responsibilities you have with those other roles. The two worlds often collide. One secret to success is learning the balance needed for each facet of your life.
Caregivers often forget to tend to their own emotional, physical and spiritual needs and that can lead to burnout. Other factors contributing include:
- Role confusion- some caregivers gradually lean into their role, but some find themselves in it unexpectedly and immediately. The suddenness can make it very difficult for you to differentiate your role as caregiver from your role as a spouse, child, friend, or parent. This is different than balancing all of the roles you take on. This is more about how to separate out your roles to your mother, for example, as caregiver vs. daughter or son.
- Unrealistic expectations- it's easy to think that you will help the one you are caring for to the degree that they won't suffer anymore, but that just isn't the case when you are dealing with a progressive disease, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. That reality can be very discouraging.
- Lack of control-it is impossible to control every aspect of someone's care, such as medications, appointments with doctors, finances and that can be incredibly frustrating.
- Unreasonable demands- some caregivers burden themselves without asking for help, and some family members place unreasonable demands on the sole caregiver.
How can you prevent burnout?
- Be assertive and learn to set limits.
- Find someone you trust who allows you to vent your frustrations.
- Set realistic goals.
- Accept that you may need help and delegate.
- Find support groups so that you don’t feel so isolated in your situation.
- Take advantage of respite care services such as in-home care, daycare or a short stay in an assisted living facility.
- Set aside time for you to rest, eat healthy, exercise and decompress.
- Seek professional help from a social worker, a member of the clergy or therapist.
- Know your limits. Understand your role and recognize the potential for burnout.
- Educate yourself about the illness. The more you know, the more effective you can be.
- Use humor to deal with stressful situations.
- Inform your doctor of your situation and that you might need his/her support.
- Call a friend and enjoy something fun.
- Establish a network of relatives and friends who you can call on to help you out. Kathryn Pears, founder of Dementia Care Strategies in Conway, South Carolina says, “It’s more the exception than the rule, but some families band together, establishing clear areas of responsibility.”
- Break large tasks into small ones.
- Try mind-body techniques. There is growing evidence that our thoughts can directly impact our health and that our physical health affects our mental state. Implementing mind-body techniques such as meditation, acupuncture, yoga, massage or journaling may help prevent burnout.
Feeling defeated and discouraged are also common emotions among caregivers. There are two contributing factors to these feelings. The first is the lack of a sense of “agency,” according to clinical psychologist, Barry J. Jacobs. It’s a simple concept: when you feel that you hold the power in a situation, you are better equipped to handle that situation and the challenges that come with it, with greater ease than when who don't. The second contributing factor is what University of Pittsburgh social psychologist Richard Schulz calls “willful awareness.” He found that those who are proactive in choosing their caregiver role have far lower levels of emotional stress and physical problems than those who feel that it was thrust upon them.
Whether you become a caregiver gradually or suddenly due to a crisis, or whether you are a caregiver willingly or by an incident, it is paramount that you fully accept your role as a caregiver. Reframing how you see yourself in the caregiver role can help you structure your life in a way that enables you to prioritize the various aspects of your life, as well as take better care of yourself. Give your essential role its due and understanding so that you can stay alert to recognize the signs of impending burnout. You are not just helping out- you are providing a service that requires more patience, understanding, and strength than most professions. Unless caregivers begin to identify themselves as such and attribute real value to it, more will continue to suffer and ultimately burnout. A simple change in acknowledgment and acceptance can make all the difference in your world.
Evercare Study of Caregivers in Decline, "A Close-up Look at the Health Risks of Caring for a Loved One,” conducted in collaboration with National Alliance for Caregiving, September 2006, is based on an online survey of 528 caregivers in fair or poor health who indicated that their caregiving has made their health worse.