Caring for the Caregiver: Methods to Help Caregivers Cope with Stress
Tips to help you manage your time, energy and emotions while still meeting the needs of the ill person!
Being a caregiver for someone with a serious illness or chronic condition isn’t easy. There are a multitude of demands on your time, energy, and resources. Between doctors’ appointments, dispensing medication, managing the ill person’s household, providing meals, and more, it’s all too easy to feel overburdened, overstressed, and overwhelmed.
That’s why Walter St. John, Ed.D., says it’s so important for caregivers to develop healthy and habitual coping mechanisms.
“Even when the ill person is someone whom you love deeply, such as a spouse or parent, being a caregiver puts you under a tremendous amount of mental, emotional, and often physical stress,” points out St. John, author of Solace: How Caregivers and Others Can Relate, Listen, and Respond Effectively to a Chronically Ill Person
As a result of the constant stress they’re under, caregivers often suffer from fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, a lowered immune system, and much more.
Here, St. John shares seven healthy ways for caregivers to effectively cope with stress:
1. Have realistic expectations for yourself. When many people take on caregiving roles, they have unrealistic expectations regarding how much they’ll be able to do, what their relationship with the ill person will be like, what type of attitude they’ll have, etc. And when reality doesn’t match these ideals, stress, and disappointment can result.
"Learn to accept what you cannot change and focus only on the things that you can change,” St. John advises. “Also, realize that you cannot give what you do not have, so know your mental and physical limits, and be aware of your personal limitations regarding your availability to care for the ill person.
2. Obtain advice on caregiving from experienced caregivers. “There are so many sources of help and guidance to which you can reach out,” points out St. John. “They include, but are certainly not limited to: friends or relatives who have acted as caregivers, the ill person’s medical team (e.g., doctors and nurses), clergy, social workers specializing in caregiving, and nursing home professional staff. There may be caregiver support groups in your area, and they can certainly be found online. I promise, it’s much better to learn various coping techniques in advance from experienced caregivers, rather than learning them the hard way through trial and error.”
3. Accept that as a caregiver, you need help. You will need to set boundaries regarding what caregiving tasks you can and can’t do, what resources you can and can’t provide, how much time and energy you have available. Again, one person cannot do it all, especially in an intensive caregiving situation; in fact, you should try to have at least two other people to help you. With that in mind, tell your family and friends what you need and how they can assist you as soon as possible. Be sure to explain the level of commitment required as well as the accompanying time demands in order to secure their full support and understanding.
4. Make every effort to still live your own life. When some individuals become caregivers, they consciously or unconsciously push the “pause” button on their own lives. They may stop spending time with their own friends and family, cease to participate in hobbies and activities, and completely rearrange their schedules in order to best care for the ill person. Yes, the intentions may be good, but the results can be extremely unhealthy. When you allow your entire life to revolve around your ill loved one, your mental health, physical health, relationships, and more can suffer.
“Do your best to balance your previous life activities and routines with the newer demands of caregiving,” recommends St. John. “Never forget that you still have your own life to live. Decide what is important—whether that’s your family, your job, or whatever—and focus on these priorities so that you don’t come to resent your role, and possibly even the ill person.
5. Keep mentally and physically fit. The truth is, you’ll be best equipped for the responsibilities and demands of caregiving if you maintain your mental and physical health. (If you don’t, expect to deal with issues ranging from a lowered immune system to depression!) Here are some of St. John’s suggestions:
• Eat balanced, nutritious, stress-free meals at about the same time each day.
• Get adequate sleep on a regular basis.
• Take several brief rest periods daily.
• See your doctor promptly when you need to.
• Schedule periodic medical examinations.
• Beware of too much self-medication (e.g., taking tranquilizers).
• Get lots of exercise regularly.
6. Learn to say no. If you’re around someone who’s ill, demands will be made of you. That’s normal. Especially if you’re a caregiver, you’re agreeing to do things the sick person can’t handle himself. It’s crucial to understand, though, that you can’t say yes to everything. While you may be the “healthy one,” you still have physical and mental limits. And when you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up stretching yourself too thin, and perhaps even harming yourself or the ill person.
“It is much better to respond with a responsible no as opposed to an irresponsible yes,” says St. John.
7. Encourage the ill person to do as many things for himself or herself as he or she can without overdoing it. It’s true that your loved one is not currently able to meet all of his or her needs alone. However, in all but the most extreme cases, he or she will still be able to complete some tasks on his or her own. Try to identify what your loved one can handle without becoming overwhelmed and exhausted (some examples might include paying bills, folding laundry while seated, and sorting medication), and then encourage him or her to take on these jobs. You’ll be helping both the ill person and yourself.
“The bottom line is, you need to take care of yourself first if you want to effectively care for the ill person,” St. John concludes. “Sacrificing yourself unnecessarily doesn’t do anyone any good. And remember, it’s okay—and encouraged!—to spend time on yourself.”
Dr. Walter St. John is a retired college professor and administrator who lives with his wife in Old Town, Maine.
He taught interpersonal communications courses for more than twenty years and has presented communications workshops throughout the United States and Canada. He has hands-on experience with disabled veterans, multihandicapped youth, and Special Olympics participants, and he has written widely in the field of communications.
Dr. St. John received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, with a major in communications. Subsequently, he earned his doctorate from the University of Southern California, with a major in management and a minor in counseling.