Holidays 101 For Caregivers

There are only four kinds of people in the world – those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.’ – Rosalynn Carter

This holiday season, chances are very high that you will share your Thanksgiving dinner with a family caregiver, or with someone who knows a family caregiver. Or, you are a family caregiver – and you might have cooked the turkey, too! Per the National Alliance for Caregiving, 29% of the US population acts as family caregiver for a disabled or ill relative. Nearly two-thirds of these caregivers are employed full or part-time, and anywhere from 59% to 75% are women. The average age of a family caregiver is 63, although there is a growing segment of children between eight and 18 who are caring for siblings, relatives or parents.

Caregiving is a stressful labor of love with an impact on emotional, physical, and mental health and well-being. As the Managing Director of a homecare companion agency in San Diego, I interact with family caregivers every day, and these men and women have taught me several valuable lessons. As the holidays approach, a time of great stress for caregivers, families and loved ones, here is the single most important piece of advice I can offer any caregiver: take responsibility for your own care.
Every time you fly, the flight attendant reminds you to put on your own oxygen mask first, in the event of a crisis, before you assist others. The experience of caring for a loved one can be full of joy, but can also be stressful and deeply draining, both physically and emotionally. Caregivers who ignore this advice can find themselves without the inner resources they need to provide their loved one their preferred level of care while sustaining themselves at the same time.

Identify, Seek and Act

There are obstacles to balancing self-care and caregiving, since the demands of caregiving often compete with career, child-rearing and other relationships. With all these competing demands, caring for oneself can be the last thing on a family caregiver’s to-do list. However, everyone benefits when caregivers identify the personal barriers preventing self-care, seek help, and act on what’s necessary for self-care.

Step One: Identify Personal Barriers

There are many beliefs and attitudes that guide behaviors, and prevent caregivers from taking care of themselves. Here are some things that the family caregivers I work with share with me:

  • I feel inadequate if I ask for help.
  • I am being selfish if I put my needs before those of my loved one.
  • Deep down, I feel I have to prove my worth to my loved one, or to the members of my family.
  • Our family always takes care of our own; it’s our culture.
  • I don’t have the time to exercise or take care of myself.
  • No one else can do it right or do it better, so I need to do it all.
  • I don’t want to impose on others.

With some self-reflection, recognizing personal barriers is the catalyst for making changes that will lead to better health and lower stress.

Step Two: Seek help

Caregivers can and should reply on the help of family, friends, and the community to deliver care without burning out. There are many community resources available to caregivers, and family and friends are eager and willing to help, once they know help is needed. Here are the best ways to engage the people and places on your support team:

  • Family members and friends: Be specific in your request. ‘I would like to go to church and bible study on Sunday. Can you watch dad from 10am – 1pm that day?’
  • In-home care agency: Agencies offer respite care, hourly care, overnight care, and live-in care, in whatever combination and level of care makes the most sense for your loved one.
  • Adult Day Care Centers: these centers are licensed in California, but typically provide therapeutic services, a nutritious meal, and medical care.
  • Meals-On-Wheels: Volunteers deliver meals to seniors’ homes, reducing isolation, providing human contact and a social safety for seniors. Today in San Diego, Meals-on-Wheels provides two meals a day for seniors.
  • Technology: Gadgets and devices have invaded every part of our lives, and caregiving is no exception. There are new and/or improved devices for personal emergency response, medication dispensing, stove safety, mental and physical fitness, and wandering safety for Alzheimer’s patients. There’s even a phone that’s designed for seniors from GreatCall, called the Jitterbug 5.
  • Apps: There are a few standout apps for caregivers that will help manage the day-to-day demands of caregiving. Some good examples are Lotsa Helping Hands, which builds a community of helpers using a shared calendar; CareZone, which manages all the information associated with aging, and allows multiple people to access it; and Elder411, a kind of WebMD for caregiving and eldercare topics.

Step Three: Act

Finally, caregivers need to be sure to take action to attend to their emotional, social, and physical needs. Here are some methods that the caregivers I am privileged to work with have used to recharge their physical and emotional batteries.

  • Take time to relax daily
  • Feed your spirit with meditation, walking on the beach, or girl-time.
  • Stay social. Staying connected with friends and family will help you recharge your batteries.
  • Do things you enjoy. Don’t let go of the things you love to do.
  • Give yourself a breather. Take advantage of whatever resources you have to take a daily and weekly break.
  • Find a community of fellow caregivers to support you, and give you the joy of offering support.
  • Exercise, eat right and get enough sleep. Stay strong for those who need you.
  • Don’t neglect your own health care. It’s important to keep up with your own physical health.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist, especially at holiday time. Don’t sweat the small stuff, especially when family is gathering. Setting a perfect table, roasting the perfect turkey or decorating a perfect tree isn’t as important as helping your loved ones enjoy the holiday.

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!