Taking Care of Those Who Care for Others

Many people in the “sandwich generation” know all too well the tendency to burn the candle at both ends. These are those who are simultaneously raising children and also taking care of aging parents or other relatives. They spend so much time and energy in caring for others that they have nothing left over to spend on taking care of themselves. And sooner or later, a day of reckoning is sure to come.

The problem is that too often, those who are most focused on caring for the needs of others have trouble recognizing their own needs. And, just as you can’t pour from an empty bottle, you can’t do what is needed for someone else when your own resources are depleted.

According to the Mayo Clinic, caregivers are particularly prone to a type of stress known—appropriately—as “caregiver stress.” It may manifest in any of several ways:

  • feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried;
  • frequent fatigue;
  • sleeping either too much or not enough;
  • unexplained weight gain or loss;
  • prone to irritation or anger;
  • loss of interest in activities once enjoyed;
  • frequent feelings of sadness;
  • frequent headaches, body aches, or similar complaints;
  • drug or alcohol abuse.

Wondering if you might be prone to caregiver stress? Here are the Mayo Clinic’s primary risk factors:

  • Being female (up to 81% of formal and informal caregivers are women)
  • Having fewer years of formal education
  • Living with the person you are caring for
  • Social isolation
  • Having depression
  • Financial difficulties
  • Higher number of hours spent caregiving
  • Lack of coping skills and difficulty solving problems
  • Lack of choice in being a caregiver

Fortunately, resources are available, both to the caregivers and those who care about them, to provide perspective and support that can help alleviate stress and provide information to help caregivers receive the assistance they need in order to stay healthy. The Family Caregiver Alliance offers common-sense advice:

  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Instead of grabbing whatever is available, take the time to eat a healthy diet.
  • Don’t skimp on exercise; something as simple as a daily walk in the neighborhood can relieve stress.
  • Instead of “powering through,” admit to yourself and others that you’re ill, and get the time you need for rest and recovery.
  • Don’t put off your own healthcare; make and keep medical appointments.

Even though it might seem obvious to others to take steps like those above, caregivers are too often prone to delay or deny their own basic self-care needs because they fear not providing the necessary help to those for whom they are caring. But the Mayo Clinic advises caregivers to give themselves permission to ask for what they need. And sometimes, this means that those who are close to the caregiver may need to lovingly insist that they:

  • Accept help. Caregivers need to overcome their hesitancy to ask for the help they need. They may need to be encouraged to make a list of tasks that would lighten their load and share it with those who are in a position to provide assistance.
  • Stay connected. Caregiving can be a very isolating experience, as the caregiver’s focus narrows down to the needs of those they are attending. But everyone needs connection and community, and caregivers may need it even more than most. For ideas on support groups and other helpful resources, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) provides an online directory designed for caregivers.
  • Set goals. Caregivers need to remember that their lives consist of more than their caregiving duties. They need to be encouraged to take time for activities, pursuits, and objectives that are important and meaningful to them, beyond their caretaking responsibilities.
  • See their doctors. Taking care of your health is essential, especially if you want to be helpful to someone else. Maintain a regular schedule of checkups and preventative care, and make it a priority.

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