Essential Conversations with Dr. Amy: Caring for the Family Caregiver

Are you a family caregiver who is devoted to caring for your parent?

It is admirable to be dedicated to providing excellent care for an aging loved one; however, it may be important for you to take a step back and examine if your role is affecting your wellness. Research does show that caregiving can have a significant impact on your health and well-being. For example, caregivers may not have time to engage in preventive health behaviors (Schulz, 1997), and may have higher levels of depression and physical health problems when compared to non-caregivers (Pinquart & Sorensen, 2003; Vitaliano, Zhang & Scanlon, 2003).

You may be wondering how you can possibly provide excellent care for someone else while taking excellent care of yourself, too. One answer is to think in terms of sustainability. If a parent requires care because of a shift in their health or mobility that happens suddenly, a family caregiver will likely utilize crisis behaviour to manage the situation. This may mean putting most of their time and energy into providing care for their parent. This is what we do in a crisis: muster our resources for the situation at hand. It makes sense to do this for a short period of time.

However, this is not a good strategy for long-term caregiving. Crisis behaviour can’t be maintained for the long-term, and ultimately will wear out the caregiver(s). Even if the care provided seems right for the care recipient, if it is at the expense of the caregiver, it will not be sustainable. Instead of thinking about caregiving like a runner thinks about running a sprint, the caregiver needs to think about it like a runner thinks of a marathon. This means conserving energy for the long run and practicing self care to allow one to go the distance.

To prevent your own caregiver burnout—or that of a loved one who is caregiving— start by assessing the situation. Asking the following questions can help. Are you, the caregiver…

  1. Getting enough rest?

  2. Eating a healthy diet and exercising?

  3. Attending to your own medical needs, including check-ups?

  4. Able to have sufficient enough breaks to enjoy other aspects of your life?

As the caregiver, you may need an objective person to help you honestly assess your situation. When we are completely engaged in caregiving, it can be very difficult to clearly see the impacts on our life.

Discovering that you are not practicing good self-care is simply a wake-up call that the caregiving situation needs some adjusting to be sustainable. For example, perhaps you need to discuss the care recipient’s needs with a professional or other knowledgeable person who can help you consider ways to supplement care or provide care differently. Not all care supplementation needs to be from professionals; often there are ways to better engage friends and other family members to provide some of the care, or offer breaks so that you can take care of other aspects of your life.

Sometimes, having a couple of weeks of respite care where you are able to fully step back from the caregiving role is an opportunity to get a different perspective on the situation. It is also possible that an honest assessment with an objective professional, or a break through respite care, could lead you to realize that there needs to be significant changes in the caregiving provided. This might include considering long term care options.

I know that many caregivers suffer enormous guilt about the need to find an alternative care or housing option. One thing that may alleviate that guilt is understanding that sometimes that change can allow you and your family to spend more quality time with your loved one, because you are no longer needing to provide for personal care needs and meals. Now, the time you spend together can be more as mother and daughter, father and son, grandmother and grandchild, than caregiver and care recipient. It may actually lead to more time for engaging in fulfilling conversation and activities.

As you consider your caregiving situation, remember to think about sustainability and the need for an objective perspective to help you determine what is best for everyone; care recipient and caregiver. And then remember that your self-care is as important as any care you are providing to someone else. There truly are solutions that are workable for everyone involved. My advice? Take a deep breath and start to plan for the long-term, rather than continuing in crisis mode.