Stay Social and Keep Up with Friends
Staying socially connected decreases isolation and feelings of loneliness, making you feel less depressed or anxious during this time of your caregiving life. Even better, getting active with your friends can improve your physical health and decrease stress brought on by your caregiving role.
Daily responsibilities, such as work deadlines or shuffling kids to their extracurricular activities, are enough to keep most adults feeling stressed out and overwhelmed. Adding caring for an aging family member to the daily or weekly task list can push feelings of stress to actual physical illness or distress. However, the Family Caregiver Alliance reports that more than 34 million Americans are currently in that situation, feeling sick, tired, and unsupported.
Most unpaid and informal caregivers, typically children (mostly daughters), begin their caregiving role slowly. Perhaps Mom stopped driving due to safety concerns and needed some help getting to the grocery store a few times a month. Or, maybe Dad needs help with managing his medications. In many cases, caregivers start helping out their loved one with simple tasks that are not a major burden to their regular daily life. However, as Mom or Dad needs more assistance or care coordination, informal caregivers can find themselves suffering physically and emotionally due to their commitment.
What is Caregiver Stress?
If you are in a caregiving role with your aging family member, you may notice that you feel more fatigued than usual. This is just one symptom of caregiver stress or caregiver burnout, which can affect caregivers who are living with the person they are caring for, caregivers who live near the person they are caring for, and even caregivers who live far away from the person they are caring for.
The Alzheimer’s Association identifies ten common symptoms of caregiver stress, though caregivers may experience one, or all, of them at a time. Symptoms can affect physical and emotional health and can include disruption in sleep patterns, anger or mood swings, depression, anxiety, and even social withdrawal. Caregivers can experience signs of stress, decreased physical health, and increased mental health conditions without prioritizing their own self-care.
One way caregivers can beat signs of caregiver stress is to stay socially engaged and keep up with old, and new, friends. It can seem difficult to make time for social appointments in your already busy calendar, but increasing your time with encouraging and supportive peers can have marked benefits on your overall health.
The Importance of Support
Researchers have only started to look at the impact socialization has on our life. While we know that humans are built to be social beings, it has been difficult to quantify the importance of friends. We are just beginning to understand how a cup of coffee with a friend can positively affect all aspects of our health.
Caregiver stress can bring about a depressed immune system, making you more susceptible to catching a cold or having a simple cold turn into a serious hospital stay. Fortunately, making time to connect with friends can combat that illness susceptibility. Psychology Today notes those who stay socially connected can benefit from a more robust immune system. Who knew meeting a pal for dinner could keep influenza at bay?
Beyond a stronger immune system, connecting with a friend can also decrease feelings of depression or even decrease your risk of dementia, according to Psychology Today. Isolation is common among caregivers, simply because after a day full of work and caring for others, heading out to catch a movie with a friend can seem downright impossible. However, making a concentrated effort to keep a balanced social calendar can pay off by making you feel more energetic, validated, and supported.
Socialization is important to the health of caregivers, as well as the health of seniors. The National Institute on Aging notes social isolation is a risk factor for morbidity and mortality rates among older adults. Perceived feelings of loneliness can increase the risk for depression among adults, as well as even increase blood pressure.
Finding Support Online
If you are struggling to even imagine what it could look like to get out of the house to catch up with a friend, start by taking smaller and more attainable steps. Thanks to technology, caregivers around the world are able to connect with one another when it is convenient for their schedule.
Caregivers are significantly more likely to use online resources to connect with peers or read the stories of others in similar caregiving situations. You can use downtime to find an online support group or board, where you can “meet” people who are in the same boat as you. Hearing their struggles mirror your own can help you to feel validated and can beat back negative feelings, such as guilt or resentment, that can fester if you try to handle it on your own. Online outlets also allow you to share your own struggles with others, as well as to share your joys and even your failures. You can even learn from others, discovering new interventions that you can apply in your own life.
Online friends are an excellent resource for caregivers, but without pursuing friendships “in real life”, caregivers can remain isolated and unhealthy. Consider safely connecting with a local online friend in a public place to take your friendship out of cyberspace and into the real world for maximum benefit to your life.
Making Time for Connection
Now that you know why staying social and connecting with your friends is important to your mental and physical health, and you know how to use online technology in moderation to seek out support, it is time to learn how to make meeting up with friends a priority in your weekly schedule. Try scheduling your time with friends in advance, marking it in your personal calendar in ink. Once you have it scheduled, you can work on getting any help you need to make it happen. Ask another family member to take over your care duties for that time frame or hire a professional caregiver from a local home-care agency. Your aging loved one will enjoy the chance to get to know someone new, and you will enjoy some well-deserved time out with friends.
You may feel isolated from your peers, and that is ok. If you don’t have a circle of friends nearby, start by putting yourself in social situations that could lead to friendships. Join a club to learn or pursue a hobby, try out a group exercise class weekly, or call your town’s senior center to ask about caregiver support groups in your area. Commit to your new group for at least one month, giving yourself ample time to meet new friends. If you aren’t having any luck after a month, try something new. Online sites like MeetUp are great for finding local clubs or groups near you who share similar interests. Try a search for running clubs, volunteer clubs, or cooking groups; you never know where your next meaningful friendship will come from!
Staying socially connected decreases isolation and feelings of loneliness, making you feel less depressed or anxious during this time of your caregiving life. Even better, getting active with your friends can improve your physical health and decrease stress brought on by your caregiving role. Your friends can laugh with you, support you, travel with you, and remind you of your life outside of caregiving tasks or your to-do list. Your friends are important, so make it a priority on your calendar to grab that dinner or catch up over a cup of tea. Your health is worth it, and you will return to your caregiving role feeling healthy and energized.
- Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.). Caregiver stress. Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/caregiver-health/caregiver-stress
- Family Caregiver Alliance. (2016). Caregiver statistics: Demographics. Retrieved from https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-statistics-demographics
- National Institute on Aging. (n.d.). Research suggests a positive correlation between social interaction and health. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/about/living-long-well-21st-century-strategic-directions-research-aging/research-suggests-positive