Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship,in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. - Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1978)
It's time to ask yourself a hard question about caregiving: Are you currently dwelling in the kingdom of the well, or in the kingdom of the sick? Although your thoughts might initially turn to your parents, just for this moment, I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about you.
If you're a caregiver for one or more parents, you've got a tough job. I'm not saying that you'd give it up caregiving for anything, because most caregivers tell me that although caregiving is the hardest job they've had, it's also the most rewarding. Still, when you're experiencing caregiver stress, it's easy to forget yourself in the equation.
Signs of caregiver stress can include anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep problems, and social withdrawal. If you notice these signs in yourself, it's time to address them now, before more serious medical problems develop.
According to a report by the Family Caregiver Alliance, caregivers are more likely than non-caregivers to experience digestive problems, heart disease, hypertension, and other chronic illnesses. In fact, a recent study by Indiana University found that 25% of family caregivers of those with Alzheimer's disease had at least one emergency room visit or hospitalization every six months.
To identify caregiver stress, we need to pay attention to how we feel physically and emotionally. The next step is to address it by attending to our physical and emotional health. Here's how:
- Make time for the three pillars of health: sleep, exercise, and good nutrition. These practices aren't negotiable for caregivers. Write them into your calendar if you must, but don't sacrifice them.
- Find a caregiver support group. Support groups offer information about caregiving issues as well as emotional support from other caregivers. Find your local office of aging services (your phone book is a good place to start) and ask what support groups are available in your neighborhood.
- Arrange for respite care. Every caregiver needs a break now and then to manage caregiver stress. Respite care might involve care in your home for a few hours a week or adult day care at a location outside of your home. Ask your local office of aging services what respite care options are available near you.
- Seek professional counseling, if needed. If you still feel that your level of caregiver stress is in the danger zone, consider finding a mental health professional with expertise in caregiving issues. Call your local mental health center and ask for a referral, or ask members of your support group for recommendations.
The good news about caregiver stress is that it's within your control to recognize and manage it before it becomes more serious. In other words, address caregiver stress before you're a mess! Take the steps above to keep yourself in the kingdom of the well, which will also make life better for your parent.
How do you handle caregiver stress? Share your strategies by commenting on this blog, and don't forget to sign up for the EldercareABC email list to stay current on caregiving tips and information.
--Carrie L. Hill, Ph.D