I worry about caregivers. Not because they aren’t taking good care of their friend, partner, or family member. In fact, most of the caregivers I come into contact with are taking incredibly good care of their loved ones. After all, they have placed that person first and foremost in their life, during their waking hours — sometimes all 24 of them. But what I see is caregivers who aren’t taking care of themselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
If you’re a caregiver, here are some ideas to think about in terms of your own self-care:
Take ownership of your own helplessness.
Human beings love being in control, and we love it so much that we tell ourselves we have control even when it is obvious that we don’t. And in a caregiving situation, that need to be in control can result in running ourselves into the ground trying to meet every possible need of someone we love to the point that we are running on empty. In the process of depleting ourselves, we also risk alienating the people we care about by taking their own sense of control away from them.
Just where do you have control and where do you not have control? Sit down (yes, I said sit down, if only for ten minutes) and make three lists:
- What you can realistically do for your loved one
- What they can do for themselves
- What their healthcare providers can do
This can be a painful process. Many caregivers are so busy reacting to the diagnosis — doing — that they haven’t taken the time to stand back and think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. But you may learn a few things about yourself and how you’re coping.
Here is the real question: Are you running from “pillar to post” to avoid having to look at your own feelings of helplessness?
You can help your loved one to deal with the diagnosis and what it means in the future, but you can’t “fix” them and you can’t make the condition go away. Accept that you aren’t in control here. You are just here to help.
Ask your loved one to help you set boundaries.
I have found that both caregivers and patients avoid having talking about the caregiving process itself, and what they are expecting of each other. Caregivers are afraid that if they bring up the subject, their loved one may assume that they are feeling burdened with their caregiving tasks, or that they don’t want to help them anymore and are trying to find a way to break the news. In turn, patients fear burdening their caregivers, but also don’t want to be made to feel incompetent by receiving too much care.
Furthermore, newly diagnosed patients and their caregivers are not yet sure of what the kinds of support are needed, which can result in missteps and tension as the patients’ needs become clearer.
Sit down with your newly diagnosed loved one to talk about how you see your role — what you can and want to give, and what you think the patient will need — as well as his or her expectations. While defining the caregiving role is going to be a work in progress, open communications can help you to build a solid foundation for moving forward, and for protecting your own health and well-being.
Find your own support system.
If you totally deplete yourself, you aren’t going to be helpful to anyone. Yes, I know you’re superhuman, but you’re still human. Find a safe place to talk about your own emotions — your fears and frustrations — and to get feedback and advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in coping with being a caregiver. And don’t be afraid to talk about how you feel, even the feelings that you aren’t so comfortable with, like anger. A trusted friend, a family member, a counselor, or a member of the clergy can be helpful sounding boards.
Don’t go through this alone.