At some point or another, most of us will have to assume a caregiver role in life, whether for a child, spouse, parent or friend. In my house, that role was taken on by my father when my mom was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. But when he passed away at the age of 63, my mother's full-time care fell to me and my sister.
In 2012, 8 million Canadians, or 28 per cent of the population aged 15 and over, provided care to family members or friends with a long-term health condition, a disability or problems associated with aging. And according to a recent survey among working Canadians, two in 10 had to take time off work to provide care for a loved one — a number that's likely to rise given the aging boomer generation.
Whether it's an aging parent, a sick child, spouse or friend, the emotional, mental and financial burden of a being a caregiver can be challenging at best, and potentially catastrophic without the proper supports in place. Based on my personal experience, here are five tips I can share to help better manage caregiver stress.
Don't forget self-care
It may sound trite, but it's truly important you look after yourself, too. In the last year of my mom's life, I moved back into our childhood home and lived in the same room as her, while my sister's family occupied the other rooms. It was 24/7 and all-consuming.
You can't help others if you're down for the count.
Caregivers can quickly become drained and exhausted, yet carry a sense of guilt if they want to escape for a bit and have some fun. It's critical you allow time for self-care; even an hour a day to go for coffee, work out or meet a friend can help change your mindset and ease stress that can easily lead to depression or anxiety. After all, you can't help others if you're down for the count.
Accept help from others
Oftentimes people may feel a responsibility to handle everything on their own or believe that accepting help from others makes them appear weak. But even the most resilient or capable among us can become strained under the pressures of caregiving.
It's perfectly acceptable to let others help, whether that's an offer from the boss to send dinner to your house, a friend picking up groceries or running errands, or a family member coming by to help clean. And don't necessarily wait for an offer. Decide what you are realistically capable of handling on your own, then prepare a list of things that can be delegated and let others choose which items they would like to help with.
Learn to communicate
The stress of caregiving presents itself in many ways, including irritability, anxiety and depression. Often, this can lead to caregivers becoming isolated or not feeling understood, reluctant to "burden" others with their situation. Some may argue with family members or have trouble expressing how they feel.
Reach out to a good friend, find local support groups where you can connect with others who are going through a similar situation and take advantage of any counselling services available through employee assistance plans. Being able to talk about your emotions is necessary for coping and can help create stronger bonds with loved ones.
One of the most overwhelming aspects of being a caregiver is the sheer number of responsibilities, from navigating the health care system to making decisions in times of crisis. Not to mention everyday errands, shuttling to doctor's appointments or finding competent assisted care.
Although it may feel like it at times, remember that you are not alone
Sites like Elder Caring provide guidance, education and care management services to support patients and their families, with links to helpful resources and blogs on topics ranging from dementia to resolving family disputes. SilverSherpa will navigate the system for you so you don't have to. It's extremely helpful to lean on the knowledge of professionals who understand what you're going through and can help take some of the load off.
Protect your income
Finding out that your spouse or child has been diagnosed with a terminal illness is devastating. Among the confusion and sadness, the last thing you want to worry about is your finances.
Several years ago, a colleague of mine found out her daughter had leukemia and needed to be home to manage her care. But she couldn't afford the time off and her disability insurance did not include benefits to care for dependants or loved ones. Luckily, she has been with the company for many years and her manager found a way to continue paying her salary, but not everyone is so lucky.
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Check your benefits coverage to see what's included. Disability insurance is critical, but most plans only cover your own illness or accident, so look for additional coverage or riders that provide benefits for family compassionate care. While there is some government financial assistance available, it likely won't be enough to cover all your costs and time away from work.
Despite the hardships, being a caregiver is an important role that can also be rewarding, providing opportunities for deeper bonds with loved ones and personal growth. For better or worse, it's a part of life. Although it may feel like it at times, remember that you are not alone.
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