As the number of older adults increases, many of us will at some point become a caregiver to a parent or other family member who is aging or recovering from a temporary or long-term condition.
While there are formal health services that address medical needs, very often family members are called upon to become what is referred to as informal caregivers.
Informal or unpaid caregivers fulfill a vital role in providing a variety of supports to loved ones, and their contribution is critically important in maintaining a meaningful quality of life for their family member.
But while the caregiving role is meaningful, it can also become very stressful. As a result, it is important for caregivers to find ways to care for their own well-being.
One of the first things to understand about the role of caregiver is that caregiving is an emotional experience. Being a caregiver can affect a person's life in a number of ways, both positively and negatively.
There is satisfaction in knowing that a loved one is being cared for in a certain way, and caregivers gain a sense of satisfaction in knowing that these needs are being met. But caregivers may also feel increased demands on personal time, which can leave caregivers feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
Guilt is a common feeling experienced by caregivers. People may feel that their care is inadequate or that they are not doing enough for their loved one. Feelings of anger and frustration are also common as caregivers grapple with losses and changes in their life and the life of the person they are caring for each day.
If a caregiver is not able to take a break and care for their own wellbeing, these difficult feelings can lead to burnout or depression. The following steps can assist caregivers in meeting the needs of their loved one while maintaining their own well-being.
Get information: It is important to learn about the condition of the person you are caring for so you can better understand what your loved one is experiencing. This, in turn, will help you to know what to expect and how to deal with it.
Information sources could include health-care professionals, self-help and family member organizations or books and magazines.
Aids and supports
Ensure you are properly equipped to care for your loved one or family member. Comfort items and independent living aids such as bathtub bars, walkers, etc. can help ease the burden on caregivers by making things a bit easier for them and possibly preventing injuries as well.
It is very important to reach out to others for assistance, even though this can be a difficult thing to do. Recognize that you need not do it all on your own. There are different types of resources, some provided in the home such as home care services or supportive services to family members offered by community organizations such as the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba, the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities or CancerCare Manitoba.
While every organization will offer specific services and supports, some of the types of help that could be offered include information, social and emotional support, transportation, or companionship. Call agencies or visit their websites to find out more. Friends and other extended family often would like to help but aren't sure how. Don't be afraid to ask them for help with a specific task that could lighten your load. Practical assistance such as a hot meal, a shovelled walkway, an outing to the mall or a supportive phone call are simple things that could really make a difference.
Take care of yourself
Caregivers need to find the time to take care of their own health by getting adequate sleep, eating well and finding ways to de-stress. Plan ahead and schedule regular periods of time that would allow you to take some time for yourself. People often underestimate the benefit of even 30 minutes of pleasurable activities in your day such as listening to music, going for a walk, reading or enjoying a hobby. Respite from caregiving can be in the form of time set aside for your own needs and it could also mean finding someone else who can be the caregiver for a short while when you take a break. Respite is a key factor in preventing burnout.
Getting practical help is important, but so is emotional and social support for the caregiver. Many organizations offer family and support groups that allow people to share their experiences, support one another and help caregivers to feel less isolated. Your caregiving is invaluable; give yourself permission to take care of yourself in the process as well.
Laurie McPherson is a Mental Health Promotion Co-ordinator in the Winnipeg Health Region.
Top tips for caregivers: