When You’re the Caregiver, Don’t Forget to Care for Yourself

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: General Health, Mood & Memory
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Last week, I shared the story of my wife Jan. She and her siblings had to make the difficult decision to transfer their beloved mom Peg to an assisted care facility due to her vascular dementia. It was a decision that didn’t come easy—and in fact, snuck up on the family over time.

Like many people with dementia, at times Peg is conversational and appropriately interacting with her environment. Yet, more and more of the time she’s easily confused and disoriented. Slowly, caring for Peg at home had become a 24/7 proposition for her grown children. 

Being a caregiver for your parent or your spouse—or even a child with special needs— requires enormous planning.  It also involves a lot of emotional upheaval that most of us are not fully prepared to deal with. Watching someone develop dementia is a sad process, and often the patients themselves recognize the symptoms early on. 

It’s heartbreaking to realize that you can no longer provide adequate care for your parent or spouse at home, and still have any life of your own. Yet, there is some relief if you are able to find the right place, qualified care providers, and a supportive environment with the potential for new friendships.

So, what can you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

  • Honor your feelings. Too often, caregivers push aside their own feelings as they go about their daily caretaking duties. The end result is that they hurt not only themselves, but the person they’re caring for. I’ve seen this happen so many times.
  • Go ahead and cry. Crying and sobbing cause the chest to soften and become less rigid. Tension in the heart is freed and chronic stress on the body is reduced. That's why you feel so much better after a good cry. People who hold in their grief and sorrow are at risk for heartbreak, which can lead to heart disease.
  • Seek out a support network. Whether its friends, family, or an organized support network, you need people to support you.
  • Take time out to do activities you enjoy, whether it's golf, lunch with a friend, reading a good book, strolling the park or an art gallery, listening to favorite music, or attending an event.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whether you need a nurse to come in, a friend or family member who can lend a hand, or the care of an assisted living center, give yourself permission to share the care giving.
  • Engage in activities that nurture you and help you stay centered, such as Reiki, massage, yoga, or other mind-body movement therapies.
  • Stay connected to your source of spiritual support, such as walking in nature or spending time in prayer.

When we visit my wife’s mom Peg in her new assisted care home, she’s usually happily engaged and enjoying her new environment. At other times, she is anxiously fixated on an everyday detail, like how to dial the phone. Even in such a nurturing situation, the family struggles with guilt as they continue to visit daily and lovingly reorient her to her new surroundings. In their hearts, they trust that time will heal her concerns and Peg will adjust to her new life.

But they’re not alone—many families are in the exact same boat. In fact, my wife and her sisters are going to take advantage of the monthly family nights to share tips with other families and offer support.

How about you? Have you experienced being a caregiver?

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