5 Tips for Making Sure Caregivers Get the Care They Need
Whether it’s a spouse, a relative, or a close friend of someone with a chronic health condition, caregivers often miss out on self-care. Challenges, like the unpredictability of the loved one’s prognosis, shifting roles, and an ever-expanding to-do list can often lead to distress and a vicious cycle of guilt and resentment.
Currently, nearly 1 in 5 Americans serve as unpaid family caregivers, and almost a quarter of them say taking on the role has hurt their own health, according to a 2020 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.
“It is perfectly normal to feel a range of emotions in response to [caregiving],” Deborah J. Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina in Beaufort and author of Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption. “Normalizing these feelings is important so people can feel less alone and more able to communicate what they are going through to gain support.”
If you’re concerned your caregiver is in need of more self-care, here’s how to help them reprioritize themselves.
Assemble a Care Team
In most cases, one person can’t do it all. The secret to getting through tough times is having a strong support system to take some of the weight off. When Jennifer Fink, 55, of Auburn, California, became a caregiver for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease, she says she put a care team in place as early as possible.
To do this, create a list of tasks others could help with, like grocery shopping, yard maintenance, house cleaning, and transport to and from appointments. Then, make another list of people who could help, such as neighbors, local caregiving networks, and connections through your healthcare provider, she suggests. You may even decide to invest in certain services, such as grocery delivery, to take some of the weight off your caregiver’s shoulders.
Then, when your caregiver asks how they can help, you can answer the question in a realistic, specific way—and free up some of the caregiver’s time for self-care and respite.
Dan and Jennifer Digmann, 49 and 47, a husband and wife who are both living with multiple sclerosis (MS) in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, second this advice. They allocate tasks according to their strengths. Jennifer D. manages the couple’s schedule and grocery list, as well as laundry and cooking, with the help of a daytime caregiver. And Dan holds a full-time job by day and takes care of his wife at night.
Encourage Their Passions and Goals
“The best advice I can offer [for caregivers] is to not give up on your goals or life completely,” says Jennifer F. “It may take longer than originally planned, but having something to focus on besides your loved one will help you more than you can imagine.” For her part, that means working on handmade greeting cards and paper crafts, an activity that helps put her into a calmer, more meditative mood.
Jennifer F. says maintaining your own life is especially important for younger caregivers who are trying to balance the beginning of their adult lives—work, relationships, and family—with caregiving. Encouraging your caregiver to spend time on what they love can help them not to feel “trapped” and help dial down their stress, according to the guide for caregivers from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS).
Suggest a Support Group
When Terri A. Corcoran, 71, of Falls Church, Virginia, suddenly found herself taking care of her husband, who was completely disabled, physically and mentally, by a rare condition called fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome, she started having meltdowns and noticed her blood pressure going up.
Then, she found the Well Spouse Association, a support system for spousal caregivers. She says joining a support group, connecting with members of her church, and giving back through advocacy gave her “a sense of purpose beyond the daily drudge.” You can help find virtual support for your caregiver through organizations like the Family Caregiver Alliance and NMSS.
Schedule Alone Time
Dan and Jennifer D. say they insist that the other takes time to be alone. This alone time has been essential for their success in managing each other’s care. “Couples in caregiving relationships need to give each other that grace and latitude to have time for themselves,” Dan says.
For Jennifer D., that means fitness classes with deep-breathing exercises and getting her nails done (which also frees up Dan from having to do this high-dexterity task). Thanks to his wife’s nudging, Dan also enjoys going in for a monthly massage, which helps ease aches and pains from years of helping with her transfers from her wheelchair to other spaces, like the bed. Together, they work on reframing self-care not as a luxury but as a necessity.
Remind Them You’re in This Together
When your situation is causing frustration, stress, or even anger, it’s really easy for caregivers to forget that they’re caring for the person they love.
Jennifer D. shares an example of when Dan struggles with a transfer: “I’m on his team, and he loves me, and when he’s frustrated, he’s not frustrated with me—he’s frustrated with the disease,” she says. “That’s important for the caregiver and the recipient to remember: Your mutual enemy or frustration is the disease, not the person.”
Making time for yourself—when you feel like you have so little time already—is a tall order. But with a few nudges from you, your caregiver can reclaim their right to self-care, and that can lead to an improvement in your relationship and overall health and well‑being.
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