SENIOR SPOTLIGHT: The challenges of good caregiving

Maureen Wendt

November is National Family Caregiver Month. In recognition of the unprecedented challenges caregivers are facing due to COVID-19, this year’s theme is “Caregiving Around the Clock.” Caregiving month is dedicated to supporting caregivers as they care for others.

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 with driving your loved one to get groceries or go to the doctor. Later, you find yourself helping more and more, often realizing that the one you are caring for is dependent on you — sometimes in small ways and sometimes in significant ways. And, COVID-19 has brought new realities and obstacles for family caregivers as they help their loved ones during the pandemic.

​​Caregivers are all around us. What makes a great caregiver stand out from the rest of the crowd?

Great caregivers are those who naturally have an urge to help others. Often times they are people who have always placed a priority on helping other people. They have empathy and compassion. It is essential that a caregiver feel the desire to want to help.

Great caregivers have patience. 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.

And, great caregivers are trustworthy. Most people who need a caregiver are in a vulnerable position. A great caregiver is someone who can be trusted to keep their loved ones' information confidential.

Becoming a good caregiver isn’t something that will necessaril 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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Caregivers, here are some strategies to live a balanced life – juggling work, commitment to children and grandchildren, and an ill spouse, for instance. If you're already stressed to the max, taking on compassionate caregiving demands an incredibly difficult balancing act.

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 start 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.

Know that, during treatment, pain or pain medication might do some talking. Be aware that pain, stress and pain medications will 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, to 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; and do three things every evening before going to bed — laundry, dishes and take out the garbage — to make the morning much more of a gift.

Let go of what you cannot control. It's easier said than done, but important for keeping stress to a minimum.

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Speaking of stress, there are some things you can do to reduce it.

Try nesting. Everyone, especially a person who is 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 there be an extended stay there.

Make comfort food. Think about what your patient is hungry for, and then consider the details: digestibility, comfort, correct textures, temperatures and presentation.

Take good care of yourself. Eat good food, exercise, rest well and learn to say no to outside demands.

Release yourself from expectations for perfection. As humans, we all experience finitude when we do not have infinite energy, wisdom or capabilities to manage our lives. This is normal. Get through each day best you can, and don’t dwell on mistakes.

Caregiving can be stressful. But remember, it can also be rewarding. Previously, several reports stated that the stress of caring for a loved one could be bad for your health, if you are a caregiver. The latest findings indicate that caregivers may actually benefit from providing care under some circumstances.

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.

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