Caring for the caregiver: How to find a balance

Caregiving comes in all shapes and sizes and looks different in every household. Parents may be caring for a child who requires constant caregiving due to medical conditions. Partners may care for their significant other after an accident or medical condition leaves them unable to care for themselves and children or grandchildren can be found caring for aging parents and grandparents.

“Caregiving is defined as taking responsibility for the well-being of the person you are overseeing — helping with activities of daily living, medical needs, ambulation, nourishment and daily hygiene,” said Kathleen Gunderson, Vice President Ancillary Services at AMITA Health.

It seems that almost everyone knows someone who has taken on additional caregiving responsibilities for one reason or another. While both men and women can become caregivers, women seem to bear the brunt of the responsibilities. According to the Alzheimer's Association's 2018 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report, two-thirds of caregivers responsible for caring with someone with dementia are women and over one-third are daughters.

“Women are overwhelmingly more called upon for these duties,” said Dr. William Rhoades, Chairman, Department of Medicine and Geriatrician at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

Additionally, many caregivers find themselves as members of a “sandwich generation,” meaning that in addition to caring for an aging parent, they are also responsible for children under the age of 18. Rhoades said a huge amount of stress can accompany this situation, as women can find themselves being a primary caregiver to multiple generations of family members. Balancing everyone's needs while staying healthy themselves is challenging and can feel like an impossible task at times, but Rhoades said caregivers need to stay on top of their health.

“Many caregivers of spouses don't have time for themselves and only uncover an illness after their spouse has died and they go to the doctor,” said Rhoades. “Preventive care and routine screenings while caregiving are important.”

Caregiving is an all consuming responsibility and the pressure associated with it can lead to feelings of overwhelm and burnout. Gunderson said experiencing depression, anxiety, social isolation, guilt and feelings of resentment toward the person they're caring for could all be signs that a caregiver could be feeling overwhelmed by their role.

“Disordered sleep, disordered eating, alcohol abuse or self-medication can also be signs of caregiver burnout,” said Rhoades. “If they're disheveled and look like they're not caring for themselves, those could general signs as well.”

If caregivers feel like they're approaching the burnout stage, it's important to address it as soon as possible. Having a support system is key to helping reduce feelings of stress and burnout. Rhoades encourages caregivers to answer the questions — where is my support coming from (who) and where is that support geographically located (near me or long-distance). The answers to those questions will help the caregiver devise a plan of care for themselves and their loved one. For example, those who have support in the area may be able to call upon others to help with the caregiving responsibilities, but those whose support systems are geographically spread out may offer assistance in other ways, such as helping find and pay for home help.

“Caregivers need to block time to care for themselves, establish boundaries and secure backup when breaks are needed,” said Gunderson.

Caring for one's self, whether that be scheduling a doctor appointment, attending a yoga class or just taking an hour to relax, is vitally important for caregivers, but it cannot be done without help.

One of the best ways a caregiver can care for themselves is creating a support network to draw on in times of overwhelm and burnout. Follow these tips to creating that network today:

• Look into adult day services. Several places in the area offering daytime programming for older adults, such as Adult Day Services at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. These programs are designed for adults who may need constant care because of cognitive or physical impairments. “Adult day care is good for three reasons,” said Rhoades. “It gets the older person out of the house while providing them with a structured environment. It gives the caregiver a break from 24/7 caregiving responsibilities since the person will be receiving caregiving support at the program, and it gives the caregiver the opportunity to engage in activities besides caregiving.” Caregivers can take this time to schedule doctor appointments, attend a workout class, catch up on tasks in their own home, or see friends.

• Use family in a directed way. Other family members aren't always aware that a caregiver needs help or know what help to provide. One way to ease the pressures associated with caregiving is to ask for help. Rhoades said the requests should be as specific as possible, such as “I need to go to the doctor this week. Can you come and sit with mom for an hour on Tuesday?” Dividing tasks and days among family members can also help the primary caregiver.

• Is help available? Becoming the primary caregiver for someone affected by a cognitive or physical impairment is a tremendous commitment and cannot be done alone. To be able to care for themselves, caregivers must create a support system. If no other family members are available to help, Rhoades suggests finding ways to hire help.

William Rhoades
Kathleen Gunderson
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