Are you caring for a relative with a serious illness
or age-related issues? Here's how to find balance.
“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 a caregiver.” - Rosalyn Carter
Caregiving is the hardest job you will ever do. Surely, air traffic controllers, brain surgeons, and fighter pilots have slightly harder jobs, right? Nope. Why, you ask? Because those highly trained and hardworking folks are allowed the chance to head home to decompress at the end of the shift. They are typically not on-call 24/7/365, like most caregivers.
Maybe you are caring for a toddler currently in the throes of potty training and night terrors, your spouse who is living with the challenges of Parkinson’s disease, or you are slowly witnessing your mom’s increasingly dangerous and frightening memory lapses of age-related dementia.
The common denominator? Relationships. Caregiving requires a careful balance of negotiating your needs with the often unpredictable needs of your loved one. How to cope, when society provides little respect or direction for this challenging work?
The Five Ps: 5 Steps for Healthy Caregiving
Step 1 PAUSE.
We have all heard the old advice about “put your own oxygen mask on first,” but I prefer writer Trudi Frazel’s SCUBA diving metaphor. Trudi points out that instead of waiting for the masks to drop down in the midst of an emergency, we must check our equipment and ensure our oxygen supply before we even climb in the water. Divers carefully prepare for their safety prior to and continuing throughout the entire duration their underwater exploring. Trudi is absolutely correct, in my opinion! Too often, we fumble along doing All The Things until we completely run out of our oxygen supply.
I challenge you today: PAUSE. I know you are busy and I know your loved one needs you available to attend to them what feels like every second of the day. But there are moments to pause. I promise. Even if only for five minutes, maybe during your loved one’s nap? Instead of running to switch over the laundry (it can wait!) as soon as their eyes close, sit down in a comfy chair with both feet touching the floor.
Set the timer on your cell phone for five minutes. Close your eyes. Rest your hands in your lap. Take a breath. Then another. Notice where your body moves with each breath. Become aware of your feet, hands, shoulders, facial muscles. Continue this restful awareness, just breathing and paying attention to your body, until your timer goes off. This is not New Age woo-woo. This is the relaxation response that provides serious health benefits to counteract stress. Don’t believe me? Maybe you will believe what Harvard Medical School research has to say about it.
Step 2 Partner.
SCUBA diving with a friend is clearly safer than diving alone. It is critical that you find a reliable support system to assist in your caregiving tasks and to pick up tasks in other areas of your life. Think about your circle of friends, family, and church members - even acquaintances can help here. Get out two pieces of paper and on the first page, list out every person who might utter the phrase: “let me know if you need anything.” This is the standard reply when someone is expressing empathy for your stressful situation. Some folks don’t really mean it, but we are going to weed out the ones who truly do intend to help.
On the second sheet of paper, make a list of chores, errands, and tasks you can possibly outsource. Every small business owner knows that outsourcing is the most effective way to streamline their work flow, because no one can “do it all.” My accountant knows far more about taxes than any amount of IRS.gov studying I can do in early April. As a caregiver, you are essentially running your own small business and that requires a team. Just like a CEO, you have endless appointments, meals, and maintenance procedures to attend to every day.
Now we connect your two lists! Take a cue from your high school yearbook in terms of “most likely to.” Which church friend is “most likely to” stop by the grocery store or pharmacy for you on Sunday afternoon? Which neighbor is “most likely to” be glad to mow your lawn next weekend? Make a note after each task with one or two names of folks you can call when a need arises. This will help you when that inevitable casual offer “what can I do to help?” comes up. You will be prepared with a concrete answer and your “most likely to be there” friend will feel relieved and rewarded by their ability to provide real help!
Step 3 Practical planning.
I don’t need to remind you that your time is very limited, so creating a detailed schedule will provide much relief from feeling out of control on many days. I find that an old fashioned written day-planner type schedule is much easier to glance at and modify in the moment than relying on technology, but you might be more tech-savvy than I am. If you are in the old-school camp with me, I suggest buying a simple and nice looking day planner or printing a free online day planner template.
Every Sunday evening, use your planner to write down every single thing you will do in the coming week and assign it to an actual time slot. Be sure to add in regular daily chores and care routines for your loved one, including medication and meal times, sleep routines, and medical appointments. This is a great time to carve out those five minute PAUSE breaks, when they can coincide with times your loved one is less likely to need you. Just having these refreshing moments on your calendar will remind you that your own self-care is critically important.
When you have extra time, write out master lists of usual household routines, supplies, and maintenance, including groceries, home repair cycles, and medication refill dates. This will ultimately save you time when a crisis occurs. You will have a reference list that you can easily hand off to your “most likely to be there” friend when they ask how they can help.
Step 4 Professional support.
Caregiving is not a solo pursuit, even if you don’t have many local relatives to help. Remember the list you created in Step 2? Time to expand on that by including every local professional resource you can find that might be able to contribute to the care of your loved one. You probably already have a list of doctors and other health care providers. Now is the time to see if you can access any other local resources. Complete a Google search with your community name plus one or more of these terms:
home health agency
council on aging
hospice and palliative care
public health department
personal care agencies
churches and faith-based organizations
geriatric care managers
counselors who specialize in working with caregivers
military veterans benefits office (if applicable)
211 support network phone line
Also, don’t overlook illness or disease specific organizations, such as the Alzheimer’s Association or a local cancer center. When you call each agency, ask about speaking with a medical social worker or case manager. They usually have the most comprehensive list and extensive knowledge about community resources. Be prepared to describe your special concerns and the needs of your loved one. Your family might not qualify for assistance at every agency, but you won’t know for sure unless you ask.
This can be time-consuming work, so plan to only make a few phone calls at a time. I have a list of Johnston County resources that I provide at my free Caregiver Workshops and by request to anyone on my email list. You and your family deserve the support of a carefully chosen team of trustworthy professionals with the expertise to address your concerns.
Step 5: Patience.
After all the hard work of Steps 2, 3, and 4, it’s time to revisit Step 1 and take another pause to breathe. This time, remind yourself to be patient. Creating a schedule that flows smoothly will take much trial and error and, just when you feel like things are running smoothly, your loved one’s condition will change and you will need to revamp your plans. Gathering resources takes time and, again, your loved one’s needs will continue change. But these steps will give you a solid foundation from which to work. You will begin to feel more confident and less frazzled during your daily tasks.
Now I would like to remind you to be patient with yourself and with your loved one, as well as your extended family. Release the guilt and perfectionism, along with that nagging sense that you are too exhausted to “do caregiving right.”
Give yourself permission to let go of regret for the times when you lose your patience with your loved one and the demands of your caregiving role - even those times when you might feel angry or speak more harshly than you typically would. That is a normal response to this stressful situation. You are human and stress takes quite a toll. Forgive yourself your imperfections by recognizing that you are doing the best you can under trying circumstances. That is all you can expect of yourself.
If you find yourself struggling daily with impatience or self-forgiveness, consider seeing a counselor who specializes in working with caregivers. Studies show that 20-60% of caregivers experience depression at some point in their caregiving journey. Seek professional help to cope with symptoms such as deep sadness, anxiety, inability to concentrate, or loss of interest in your favorite relaxing activities.
Taking care of yourself first is key to your success as a caregiver. Be sure to pause every day to check your oxygen tank.
For more information about caregiver support, contact me today to receive my local list of caregiver resources or to learn about the next free Caregiver Support Workshop.
About the Author
Pam is your local grief, illness, and caregiver counseling specialist and founder of Johnston Integrative Counseling. If you are looking for resources, including individual or group counseling, contact Pam today by
or phone: 919-912-5736.