SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: Some advice for caregivers

Maureen Wendt

Celebrated every November, National Family Caregivers Month is a time to recognize and honor family caregivers. It offers an opportunity to raise awareness of caregiving issues, educate communities and increase support for caregivers.

What does it mean to be a caregiver? It means you are providing care for another individual who is chronically ill, disabled or aged.

Often, caregivers find themselves in the role without training or support. It can happen suddenly as a result of an accident or illness, or it may happen gradually. First you're driving your loved one to get groceries or keep a doctor's appointment, then later, you find yourself helping more and more; and in many instances you realize that the one you are caring for is dependent on you, in both small ways and significant ways.

Caregivers are all around us. What makes a great caregiver stand out from the rest? Those who have experienced a great caregiver share some of the traits they love in their caregiver: Great caregivers are those who naturally have an urge to help others. They have empathy, compassion and patience. They're trustworthy, too.

When you work with someone who needs your care, patience and understanding are critical; it may help you to put yourself in the other person's shoes and try to understand what it is like for them to have to ask for help. Most people who need a caregiver are in a vulnerable position. A great caregiver can be trusted to keep their loved one's information confidential.

Becoming a good caregiver doesn't necessarily happen immediately, but if you work at it and truly care about the person you taking care of, becoming a great caregiver is possible.

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Compassionate caregiving usually demands a balancing act. Here are some coping strategies that may help.

Be clear about today's reality. Don't imagine things are worse than they are. Enjoy the good parts of today and don't let worries for tomorrow take over your emotions and thoughts.

Talk honestly to family and friends. Honest, frequent communication with close family and friends from the time of diagnosis is much easier than trying to play catch-up later.

Expect and prepare for tough talks. Family and friends process the news about a serious illness at their own pace. They will not accept the reality of the illness on a schedule that meshes with yours. This means that sometimes family and friends will not understand the tension of your caregiving lifestyle, especially at first. This requires a difficult conversation about what the illness is, how it will be treated, and what kinds of side effects will be expected from the treatment and the disease itself.

Learn the medical lingo. It will help you as a caregiver and a medical advocate to learn the lingo surrounding your loved one's illness. The internet is a helpful resource, but you need to learn what websites can be trusted. Even with a trusted website, don't believe everything you read. Not all information will pertain to your loved one's situation and you can worry yourself into a frenzy over some information you have read. Ask questions of the doctors and nurses. Check the accuracy of your information if you are at all troubled or in doubt.

Be aware that during treatment, pain or pain medication might do some talking. Pain, stress and pain medications may release the patient from their social "filter" and they can, and probably will, say some interesting and difficult things at times. Actually, caregivers do this, too, as stress lifts our social filters at unexpected times.  Forgive yourself as well when this happens. Listen and be compassionate as best you can. Children and teenagers will need help understanding the changes in their loved one's personality.

Control what you can control. Lots of articles about stress management advise letting go of control; however, I have found that being in control in some areas helps to greatly reduce stress.

For example: Get help with your housework or yard work, paid or unpaid; help with these chores can help make your home a sanctuary. Prepare meals in advance and freeze them. Keep bills and insurance paperwork organized so there are fewer financial surprises; make necessary phone calls to insurance companies, and pay bills (or call to arrange payments) on time. Do three things every evening before going to bed — laundry, dishes and take out the garbage; the morning will be much more of a gift.

Do some nesting. Everyone, especially people who are recovering from illness or injury and their caregiver, needs a "comfy chair," that is, a place to relax and rejuvenate. Make a comfortable nest for your loved one and for yourself by adding afghans, pillows, fresh flowers, candles, books and great music to your comfy chair area. This is important to do both at your home and at the hospital should an extended stay there be necessary.

Take care of yourself. Eat good food, exercise, rest well and learn to say no to outside demands. Caregivers rarely have time for themselves. There's always another thing to be done. However, a caregiver requires rest, too. Another form of self-care involves releasing yourself from expectations of perfection. Nobody has infinite energy, wisdom or capability to manage their life. Get through each day the best you can and don't dwell on mistakes.

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Many caregivers work and also provide care, experiencing conflicts between competing responsibilities. Research indicates caregiving also takes a significant emotional, physical, and financial toll. Caregiving can be stressful. But remember, it can also be rewarding. The latest findings indicate that caregivers may actually benefit from providing care under some circumstances.

During November, consider providing a respite for someone you know who provides care for a loved one. Offer to spend time with them or to learn how to help out. Ask what you can do to make a difference.

To all caregivers, I hope this is helpful information. You are part of an important club.

Maureen A. Wendt is president and CEO of The Dale Association, a non-profit organization that provides senior, mental health, in-home care, caregiver support services and enrichment activities for adults. For more information, call 433-1937 or visit www.daleassociation.com .

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