People caring for others often neglect their own health. In doing so, they violate a basic rule: You cannot take care of someone else if you do not first take care of yourself.
Barbara A. Chernow, PhD (Columbia University), is the founder of Chernow Editorial Services, Inc., a company that produces medical and professional books for publishers worldwide. She has also edited many reference projects, including the Columbia Encyclopedia, is the author of Beyond the Internet, and has taught at NYU and the New School. She published an article, The Other Side of Grief, in the Brooklyn Quarterly .
All too often, one hears of an older adult caregiver whose health failed shortly after the death of a partner. No doubt, the stress of providing intensive care, the burden of grief and the aging process contribute to this statistic. But people caring for others often neglect their own health. In doing so, they violate a basic rule: You cannot take care of someone else if you do not first take care of yourself.
Family members and friends should observe the caregiver during such stressful times. In particular, look for signs that the caregiver is overwhelmed and having difficulty coping with the demands of meeting the needs of a chronically ill loved one. These include:
1. Exhaustion and a lack of energy for essential tasks that are routine. Is laundry piling up? Are dishes unwashed?
2. Inactivity and a lack of interest in pursuing activities or spending time outside the home. Has the caregiver lost all interest in hobbies (like gardening or cooking) and activities that previously brought personal pleasure?
3. Excessive use of potentially dangerous substances. Has the caregiver’s use of alcohol, tobacco and both prescription and over-the-counter medications (including pain killers and sleeping pills) increased?
4. Poor eating habits that result in excessive weight loss or gain. A healthy diet is essential.
5. Depression, anger or extreme mood swings. Has the caregiver’s personality changed?
6. A failure to practice preventative medicine or to see a doctor if a medical problem arises. Is the caregiving skipping an annual physical? Is a mammogram long overdue? Was a flu shot overlooked?
These factors can be aggravated by financial difficulties, limited choices for backup help, a lack of nearby friends or family that results in a sense of isolation, and a fear of what will follow the loss of a partner.
If you are providing care for an ailing partner, establish guidelines for your own well-being:
1. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of wisdom, not incompetence. Trying to provide care 24/7 is not a prescription for success.
2. Continue to exercise, spend time with friends and participate in activities that bring pleasure. This could mean quiet time reading a good book, regular visits to the gym, or attending a show or concert. Such moments should not generate guilt. Caregivers need to step away and regain their perspective. Denying yourself any relaxation will not improve the health of your partner.
3. Schedule a physical examination and consult your physician if you experience symptoms of an illness that last more than two weeks.
4. Ask about social services that might be available in your community. Can someone provide transportation to and from the doctor? Can someone relieve you for a few hours a day or a week? Do you qualify for assistance with home care?
5. Inquire about support groups. Others who share your experiences can often suggest new approaches to problems or just provide compassionate friendship.
6. Express your emotions, including anger and frustration, to a family member, friend, adviser, physician or religious leader you trust. Admitting these feelings does not mean that you do not care; know that others in your position share and understand your reactions.
7. Ask someone you trust to monitor your behavior for signs of stress or other inappropriate conduct. You may be too close to the situation or too overwhelmed to take heed.
8. Discuss with your loved one’s medical team if home care is the best option. Sometimes, however much it grieves you, hospice care is better. Such facilities have professional caregivers who have essential skills you may not be qualified to provide or physical able to perform.
9. Realize that after your loved one passes, grief takes hold and creates its own pressures. You need to prepare and determine how you will cope with both the loss and the time void created by no longer caring for someone else. In extreme cases, a sense of despair can set in, with an accompanying attitude of no longer caring about life. Again, call on friends, support groups and on your physician for advice.
Too many caregivers postpone their own health needs and concerns by saying, “I’ll take care of myself after my loved one passes.” But by then, it may be too late.