The following is a guest post by Dr. Michael Burcham.
When someone is battling a serious illness, the family member who is serving as the “caregiver” often goes unnoticed. Ignoring their own needs, the caregiver spends their day supporting - playing the role of nurse, chauffeur, cook, and counselor. They often mask their own fear and pain - ever trying to be the optimist in the midst of a difficult medical situation. In addition to caring for the person who is sick, the caregiver often shoulders all the additional household responsibilities as well.
For the caregiver, the life they knew prior to this illness is also gone - as are dinners out with friends, vacations, and having the freedom to choose how to spend a weekend.
Days turn into weeks, months… even years. Consider the fact that the person who is ill will spend about 10-20 total hours a year interacting with medical professionals, but their family caregiver will spend over 2,000 hours each year caring for them. The caregiver’s compete focus becomes the well-being of the person they love who is sick. Often, they even lose their emotional identity as the wife, husband, son, daughter, father or mother - the duties of being a caregiver crowd out any opportunity to simply be themselves. On the outside, they are the “rock” - but on the inside the caregiver’s energy is being drained. Too much selflessness is not healthy for anyone on any level. Eventually, the caregiver’s work becomes unsustainable.
For the Caregiver. If you are reading this and you are a caregiver - give yourself a much-needed break. You’re not super-human. Caregiving can have many rewards. For most caregivers, being there when a loved one needs you is a core value and something you wish to provide. But a shift in roles and emotions is almost certain. It is natural to feel both the emotional and physical stress of caregiving. Remember that caregiving is not a sprint, it’s a long marathon, and you need energy if you’re going to be able to sustain yourself. Here’s a few suggestions that may help:
Give yourself the gift of time. A few hours of respite each week can give you renewed energy. Exercise, meditation, or even a simple walk in the park can give you an energy boost and clear your head.
Do something for yourself that gives you joy - and do it without guilt. Life should not stop because you’ve taken on the role of caregiver. It’s ok for you to occasionally go out to dinner or to visit an art gallery. Do something that brings you joy. You’ll be a much better caregiver if you’re emotionally healthy.
Surround yourself with some friends with whom you can be completely honest - sharing your own fears. Accept comfort, love and help in whatever form it comes.
Ask for help when you need it. Often, friends what to help but aren’t sure how to even ask nor what to do. Keep a list of things others can do that would be helpful. And should they ask, offer a few suggestions of things that would be meaningful to you.
Take care of your own health. Don’t add stress to your caregiving situation with avoidable health issues.
The person you’re caring for knows when you’re not doing well. Seeing you in such a state only adds to their pain of being sick. Take care of yourself - for the both of you.
For the Rest of Us. If you know someone who is being a caregiver today, reach out to support them. Become part of a network of caregivers for the caregiver. Make a meal, offer to sit with the person who is ill for an afternoon and give them a break. Bring a gift for the caregiver with a thoughtful note.
Sit with and really listen to your caregiving friend. They aren’t expecting you to solve their problems, but having someone listen is a rare, wonderful gift. Finally, ask “what can I do to help.” And do something. Simply “sending thoughts and prayers” isn’t very helpful.