Most of us who are caregivers did not choose the role that we now find ourselves in. It is a title bestowed upon us by an unimaginable circumstance. For me, I found that I was ill-prepared and so unaware of what it would come to entail. Millions of people caring are doing so for a family member. Research shows that we are at a greater risk for emotional, mental and physical health issues. Yet many, like myself, continue to do so anyway.
Psychological health can be greatly affected when one is caring for a family member. Higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression are often reported. Caregiver depression can worsen when a patient’s health declines or when a patient is placed in a long-term care facility. Caregivers often see this as a sign of failure and cannot accept the disease progression.
Naturally, caregiving is a stressful environment. Feelings of frustration, anger, helplessness and hopelessness are not uncommon when a family member is ill. Those feelings are often magnified when one is also responsible for the sick family member. As a response to increased stress, caregivers are shown to have increased alcohol and other substance abuse issues. As a caregiver, it is second nature to put those you are caring for above yourself. In doing so, caregivers are at increased risk physical ailments such as headaches and joint pain, diminished immune systems, infection and slower healing times.
Those of you who regularly read my posting know that I am one of the millions of people caring for a family member. I personally have experienced many of these side effects that I've highlighted. It is easy to look back on any situation and say that you would've done things differently. I think that is no less true than when it’s a bad situation. Having gone through so much with my sister’s cancer battle, I, too, can say that I made mistakes. Two years in, and I still do not have all the answers. What I do have are some lessons that I have learned that I hope can help all of you who are currently caregivers, and all of you who may someday find yourself with the same title.
In the beginning, each breath you take feels labored. Not because it really is, or even because of the stress. It is because you are trying to breathe for two. It sounds crazy, I know. It is your job to help somebody who used to be self-sufficient and now requires varying degrees of care. It is a place that you most likely did not ever expect yourself to be. Nobody ever does.
You need to know that, first and foremost, it is important to take care of yourself. Yes, I know that as a caregiver, you and I are not programmed that way. In your life, you have probably put others first going back as far as you can remember. But you have to stop, or at least slow down. You will not be able to sustain it. That not only affects you, but it also affects the one that you are caring for, too.
Take time for yourself. This can come in the form of a walk around the block, a night at home or grabbing coffee with a friend. It can not be just a single event, and to be on a consistent basis. It’s absolutely OK to maintain normalcy in your personal life and have a life beyond the one you are caring for; it is essential to your sanity and health. It may seem unreasonable, but you can not devote 100 percent or your time to another person.
No, you are not the sick one. Yes, you are an able-bodied individual who is perfectly capable of doing it all. That does not mean that you should. You feel this burden more than most, and the guilt often outweighs the pride of asking for help. There is no shame in taking a night off or even asking somebody else to step up. You are the only one who feels that you are failing by doing so. From the outside looking in, you are appreciated and do far too much. You may be surprised when hearing that, but it doesn't make it any less true.
On the hardest of days, taking time for yourself will seem like a ridiculously impossible task. It is super important, though. It may come in the form of a late-night television program. It could come from talking to a friend or exchanging texts in the middle of the night. I can’t count how many times that, had I not been laughing, I would have been crying. Laughter is some of the best medicine you'll find.
I am one to condone research and doing all that you can to be prepared. I am also somebody who, on occasion, has gone too far. To us caregivers, that hardly seems possible. We study every drug dosed and all the side effects, every treatment option mentioned and every diagnosis, as if we could be finding the cure while reading between the lines. Spending time on your laptop having a one-way conversation with your friends Google and Medscape is no way to live your life.
And when all is said and done, there will be many times when you will stop and wonder why. Questions will run through your head that you nor anybody else will ever have the answers to. Emotions come in waves and change as quickly as a rolling tide. Anger, joy, depression, happiness and so many difficult feelings will arise in your chest. When they do, try to let go of what you cannot change and focus on all that you can control.
Just as the people we are caring for, or the diseases that they are afflicted with, caregiving is different to each one of us. Whether we care for a short while or a lifetime, made by choice or because we are the chosen one, the common factor is that we are all serving somebody else. I feel it most important that we remember it is not only okay to take care of ourselves, to put our happiness first and choose ourselves sometimes, but it is necessary.