THE CONUNDRUM OF CAREGIVING

By Deanna Mims

“There is no perfect way to take care of an elderly parent except with the most love and patience you are able to muster on that particular day.” –AgingCare.com

Forget perfect, I would settle for consistently patient or always “minding my gap” between stimulus and response, or can’t I at least manage easygoing amusement?

If this resonates with you, you are likely a woman with career and family demands or in the famed “sandwich generation,” finding yourself spending an average of 30 hours a week bringing a parent to medical appointments, paying bills, making meals, interacting with therapy professionals, navigating the medical system, filling prescriptions and spending time on Medicare, Medicaid and all varieties of insurance and paperwork deadlines. You are not alone. You are doing what an estimated 65.7 million Americans are currently experiencing. And if you aren’t yet, consider that by 2050, the number of people over age 65 is expected to more than double, to 86.5 million. And we are addressing only aging relatives here, not other caretaking situations.

However, it can be true that this shared journey can be rewarding in meaningful ways. In revelations I get daily, I gain new perspectives on aging, enhanced gratitude, maturity, more tolerance and patience and the opportunity to serve. I’ve also learned that there are some common signs of caregiver burnout waiting to happen, such as loss of energy, inability to sleep or periodic longer periods of sleep, hypervigilance, an inability to relax, a sense of overwhelming anxiety, loss of joy or enthusiasm and feeling hopeless and lonely.

But you knew there would be good news here too, right? The quicker you commit yourself to some fundamental tools, the easier your new reality can become, and the better you can maintain and remember the “you” you were and will be again, with more energy, resourcefulness, grace and joy. Here are four fundamental mantras of coping that I’ve found helpful in my journey as a caregiver.

1) School yourself on what you are coming into. There are numerous questions that arise with an aging loved one that will be unique to their health or situation, such as, “What are the health needs of my loved one, and how will those needs impact our current resources?” “What should I expect during a hospital stay and after he or she has come home?”

“What are my local, state and national resources?” “What are my housing and at-home care options?”

2) Drop your “shoulds” and overinvestment in other people’s judgments. You want to do the best thing, so you usually prioritize your care receiver’s needs before your own, and then you berate yourself when you aren’t as patient, easy-going or loving as you or others would like or think you should be. Analyze each day as it comes, and manage your expectations with realistic objectives and what is possible on that given day. Let go of preconceived notions of what caregiving should  look like, and focus instead on how you are taking care of yourself and your loved one.   

3) It’s okay to constantly adjust your expectations. Inflexible schedules are a thing of the past. Sometimes, “done” really is good enough.

4) Empower others to lend a hand. You apply yourself to getting your loved one’s needs met, so be as good to yourself. When a friend offers help…allow it, AND have a specific suggestion. Need a date night? Ask a friend to sit with your dad for a few hours. Can’t get to the grocery store? A true friend will feel great about making a contribution by adding a few things to her basket for you. Need to vent? Tap that support group who really “get it.” Also, plan ahead. It’s essential that you have something to look forward to. 

5) Don’t forget YOU. Taking care of yourself is vital to your own health and the health of your loved one.

Too often, caregiver burnout occurs when the health of the caregiver is put last on the list. Take time for yourself every day to do something you enjoy, to exercise, and when possible, take an extended vacation to truly refresh and renew your mind, body and spirit. Prevention really is the best medicine—be sure to seek medical and professional help with taking care of your mind and body so burnout doesn’t get the best of you.

My mother—artistic, smart, funny, curious and strong. She worked full-time and raised me while caring for her own mother, providing all the extras and opportunities she could afford. Now it’s my turn, my honor and my responsibility to provide my mother what she originally gave me, all while keeping my own health a priority and helping her experience the last best chapter she deserves. May we
all have someone who loves us enough
to accompany us on this caregiving journey.  

“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.”   —Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter