Natalie Strouth is a nurse with Saint Elizabeth and the information specialist behind Ask Elizabeth, a free caregiver support service. Saint Elizabeth, a home health care company, has been a trusted name in Canadian health care for more than a century and is a national, not-for-profit, charitable organization.
In her weekly column, Natalie answers your questions about caring for a family member or friend who needs extra support -- and caring for yourself as a caregiver.
Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org
Through the Ask Elizabeth support line and my work as a nurse, I can definitely attest to the many challenges and obstacles that family caregivers contend with on a daily basis. From the constant fear of the next medical crisis, to the challenge of understanding the health care system, to just trying to put one foot in front of the other while safely (and somewhat sanely) juggling many responsibilities -- it is not easy. In a 2011 study by the Change Foundation, 22 per cent of caregivers showed signs of distress, including anger, depression, being overwhelmed and unable to continue providing care. But through it all, you'll also have your eyes and heart opened in amazing ways.
You will feel richer.
As a nurse, I truly know first-hand the positive impact that helping someone else can have on you. Being able to provide physical, emotional or spiritual support to someone, or all of the above, is not a one-way street. For me caring and helping others is deeply gratifying, rewarding and uplifting.
Soak up the highs.
When caregivers call the Ask Elizabeth support line for help with different challenges or struggles, so many of them also express the wonderful things they cherish about their role as a care partner. I hear about deepened relationships, renewed sense of purpose and belonging, great pride in being a caregiver and moment of incredible laughter and happiness. "Although there are a lot of challenges and some days I am exhausted --there are such highs that make it all incredibly worth it."
Talk about it when things are going well.
When you're frustrated or losing hope, it's easy to also lose perspective. A Saint Elizabeth research study identifies several best practices for supporting caregivers and their unique needs, including the need for caregivers to talk about their positive experiences. When things are challenging, it's natural for many people to talk about the negative rather than the positive. So it's not surprising that research suggests most caregiver support programs have goals aimed at alleviating negative aspects of the caregiver experience. However, caregivers have the potential to feel uplifted and positive about the opportunity to provide care. We stress the importance of providing opportunities for caregivers to reflect on their positive experiences, both in relation to the caregiving itself and in their lives outside of caregiving, and include opportunities to focus on some of the "lighter" aspects of their lives.
Make time for balance in your life. Often it's the little things.
If you're not caring for yourself on a basic level, like getting sleep and eating at least relatively well, you simply can't be a good care partner (or wife/husband, mother/father, friend...you get the picture). A short chat with a friend, a regular early morning run, 20 minutes to draw or paint, or even caring for something else like a garden or your dog, can help you refuel for challenging times ahead.
Start a blog.
For many people, blogging might be completely new, but in its simplest terms it's a way of sharing your thoughts and experiences with others -- and finding connections that are meaningful in ways you couldn't have imagined. It's free, and you can blog from anywhere with an Internet connection -- your computer, an iPad, a smartphone. Blogging is especially beneficial if you live in a rural area and/or have limited ability to get out to a support group. You'll be amazed at who connects with you and leaves comments.
Enjoy stronger relationships.
You might get to know the person better, or in new ways, during the experience of providing care. A 2012 Stats Canada study, Caregivers in Canada, found that about nine in 10 caregivers felt the experience was rewarding. Moreover, seven in 10 also expressed that their relationship with their care receiver had strengthened over the course of the previous 12 months.
During an interview for the Saint Elizabeth research study , a woman described her experience of providing care to her father: "You find new meaning in your new reality and we've definitely had some really happy times over the past year or year and a half. The first six months were really intense. I don't know that we could identify a lot of times where we could have stepped away and recognized the positive aspects, but definitely now."
Celebrate your efforts -- and those of the many other caregivers.
Caregivers are inspiring, remarkable, beautiful people. Our partners at Canada Cares are dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the amazing efforts of caregivers from coast to coast. Stay tuned to canadacares.org to find out who will be this year's regional and national prize winners.
Yes, there are certainly challenges and tough days, but there are also many times of expressing love in ways big and small, learning to be truly present, and even laughter. And you're not alone. Remember to look down once in a while... someone else has laid a path for you to walk on.
Send your caregiving question to email@example.com. Answers may appear in an upcoming weekly column. Ask Elizabeth does not offer legal guidance, nor does it answer questions about personal health issues.