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Dealing with Caregiver Stress

Taking care of yourself may help you take better care of your loved one

Guilt: It’s an emotion we’ve all experienced at one time or another. But if you take care of an older adult — whether it’s a spouse, parent or other relative or friend — guilt can be overwhelming at times. It may even cause you to push yourself beyond your limits and, in the process, to neglect your own physical and emotional needs.

Got Guilt?
The best way to get a handle on your guilt is to understand where it comes from, according to Carol J. Farran, DNSc, RN, a professor in the Rush College of Nursing. Although we tend to label guilt as a negative emotion, it isn’t always.

For instance, the guilt you feel when taking care of an older adult can be closely related to feelings of empathy, regret, loss or grief. You may feel “guilty” that your relative or friend is sick while you’re healthy, that they can’t do things or go places like they used to, or that you’re “powerless” to change their situation. In these cases, guilt is a normal, human response.

Guilt can also result from making promises — like telling your parents you’ll never put them in a nursing home — that you may be unable to keep. Promises are made with the best of intentions, but it’s not possible to know how a person’s physical or mental health will progress. When faced with this type of dilemma, try to choose the option that’s best for your relative or friend, regardless of past promises, and involve him or her in the decision-making process as much as possible.

A Balancing Act
Problems can arise when guilt stems from unrealistic expectations. “A lot of unrealistic guilt is related to feeling that your entire life must be focused on the person you’re caring for, at the expense of everything else,” says Farran. “It’s understandable, because the demands are on you all the time. But if you don’t step back sometimes from your role as caregiver, you’ll lose the balance in your life.”

Losing balance can be detrimental to your health and well being. A caregiver’s risk for both mental distress and physical illness is greater than that of their non-caregiving peers. So it’s essential for caregivers to lead a “two-track life,” with one track devoted to caregiving and the other devoted to self-care.

To create a self-care track, Farran recommends taking these steps:

  • Acknowledge your emotions, both good and bad; don’t ignore or suppress them. Find a way to make sure those feelings of anger, sadness, frustration or guilt don’t overwhelm you. Find someone who can help you sort through your feelings, whether it’s a therapist, health care worker, relative, friend, member of the clergy or support group.
  • Create personal affirmations — things you can say to support yourself — or simple rituals (praying, breathing exercises, etc.) to get you through rough times.
  • Carve out a life separate from your caregiving situation. It doesn’t have to be an everyday thing, but make some time every week to do things you enjoy — thinking, reading, journaling, going out with your family and friends, playing tennis, going shopping, or dining out. These breaks will rejuvenate your body and spirit.
  • Pay attention to your own health. Eat right, get enough sleep and make time for doctor’s visits. Make sure you monitor any medical problems you may have, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Make time for exercise. Physical activity is both a way to stay healthy and a stress reliever. “If your schedule seems too full, start taking walks with the person you’re caring for,” Farran suggests. “That way, you both get exercise, and you don’t have to add another thing to your ‘to do’ list.”
  • Accept and ask for help. Make a list of people who have offered or might be willing to lend a hand with specific tasks like shopping, cleaning, cooking or providing transportation to doctor’s appointments.
  • Put programs and services in place — from meal delivery programs to adult day care — to supplement the care you provide. And take advantage of free health and aging programs like Rush Generations, which provides valuable information, resources and support for both older adults and the people who care for them.

If you start to feel guilty, remember that self-care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Having a life of your own doesn’t make you a bad caregiver or a bad person. The bottom line is that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.

For information on a unique membership program for older adults and their loved ones and caregivers visit the Rush Generations page. Or call (800) 757-0202.

For information on medical services for older adults at Rush visit the Geriatric Services home page. Or call (800) 757-0202.

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