Caregivers’ Mental Health Can Depend on Meaningful Breaks

  • Most people go into caregiving out of love. They jump into caring for a parent or other loved one because it feels natural and good. Few of us stand back with pen and paper, or a calculator, and figure out the projected number of hours, days, months or years the extra job of caregiving adds to our already full lives.


    Caregiving, to me, is a symbol of all of life's unknowns. We operate from the heart. Yes, we are all individuals and we grew up in very different families. Some people were brought up in extremely dysfunctional homes where physical and/or emotional abuse were the norm. Others grew up in nearly ideal families. Most grew up with circumstances somewhere in-between the two. However, there is a human need buried inside most people that urges us to want to please our parents. And the pleasing often means caring for them as they age and become more vulnerable. In general, this is a good thing.

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    Caregiving for Others Means Self Care As Well

    I was one of those who answered the call for caregiving - repeatedly - over the span of two decades. The complete list of elders totaled seven, though the most I cared for at one time was five. I also had children at home, one with chronic health problems. It never occurred to me to think ahead and try to guess how long each person would need me. I can't say that I'd do it any differently now, which is likely good. Because if someone would have told me I was going to spend the next twenty-years as a primary caregiver to multiple elders, I would probably have found it overwhelming. But life is generally best taken one day at a time, and I am fortunate that I looked at my caregiving that way. What was on the plate for one day was plenty.


    Not that I didn't need to plan. We all do. We need to have legal matters settled well enough so that when the time comes that we need help, our families are in a legal position to do so. We need to encourage our elders to do the same. We can help them best if we have the legal documents in hand. That takes planning.

    However, for daily needs, a day at a time works. Who can "plan" the day Dad has a stroke? Who can "plan" which day we'll need to rush to ER with Mom after yet another serious fall?


    However, we do need to plan some breaks for ourselves. If we care for elders who can be left alone for a period of time, or if they live in a situation with in-home care or assisted living, we need to make time to do some things for ourselves. If we are social and want to go out with friends for an evening, we should plan that, and if Mom and Dad can't be left alone, it's time to ask a neighbor or friend to stop over and keep an eye on them.


    While it can be fun to pile our loved one in the car and go out for adventures, if they are able, that is still caregiving. Yes, you will both, hopefully, enjoy yourselves. But that still isn't time for you to be you.


    Our Needs Vary

    I am not a particularly social person. During my heavy-duty caregiving years, many people have told me outright that I needed to "get out more." I didn't feel the need. I wanted to "stay home more." That was my choice. However, the key to this is that this was my choice. I relaxed with a beloved book or three. My mind took journeys, even though my body was splayed on the couch. I was content. If I had been forced into a more social life, I'd have felt that this socializing was one more requirement and it could have led to stress and depression, as I already had too many requirements.


    Admittedly, I'm unusual in my need for solitude. Many people would have been at high risk for depression if they'd chosen my route to relaxation. I'd hazard a guess that most people would be better off going out with friends.


    The point is, however, that caregivers must find something that pleases them and follow through with it. If any person feels helplessly trapped over a period of time, depression and illness are likely to follow.


    Statistics abound about caregiver depression. From the Family Caregiver Alliance comes this quote which echoes many others: "Studies consistently report higher levels of depressive symptoms and mental health problems among caregivers than among their noncaregiving peers."

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    I believe that much of this stress comes from a feeling of helplessness, and also from not knowing how long this intensive caregiving will last. I remember well having to decide who needed me most at any given time - my elders or a child. Often, the real answer was both. However, there was only one of me. So, just as I developed my own way of relaxing and freeing my mind, at least temporarily, from the very basic fact that many vulnerable people needed something from me, and nearly constantly they all wanted even more, I had to develop my own rules for choosing what I'd do.


    Your personality, your values, your personal needs and your life configuration will help you determine your own rules for living. If you can't do it alone, please see a counselor to help you. If you don't set some rules for your own self care, you could end up joining the army of depressed caregivers already out there. Below are two of my most important self-care rules.

    • I determined that what I really liked and wanted, based on my own past love of books and solitude, would trump all of the advice well-meaning friends, and even experts, were throwing at me. If I chose to "get out," I would. But only if I chose to. If no one understood that I actually relaxed by reading Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for the fifth time, that was fine. I knew that was right for me, therefore that was my relaxation of choice. For most people, a night out with good friends or a good run in the park would be the ticket. My advice: whatever you choose, make sure your breaks and relaxation are your choice, so that your relaxation doesn't become just one more thing that you do to please others.
    • I asked myself, what would my elders do if they were in my shoes? My parents were caregivers to their parents. They expected us children to embrace our grandparents' needs and be part of the caregiving, if only in a way that meant giving up some parent time. However, my parents were good parents, as well. They were, also, wonderful grandparents. I knew in my heart that my elders would not have wanted me to neglect the true needs of my children. Therefore, even though the choice wasn't always clear, and there were many painful moments, I used that belief as a touchstone. The night my beloved aunt died, I left the hospital long enough to be at my oldest son's first band concert. My parents were with my aunt so she wasn't alone. However, she died while I was gone. I regretted missing the moment of her passing, but I knew in my heart that she would have told me to go and be with my son - and she would have meant it.

    In the end, I believe being a good caregiver means, to steal a phrase from William Shakespeare, "To Thine Own Self Be True." If you are to be a good caregiver, you will need to find your own path to personal health - mental and physical. That may take the help of a professional to treat depression. It may take a support group. It will surely take a group of friends or family as some kind of backup. Your health is as vital as the health of the one you care for. If you crumble, who will be there for them?


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Published On: May 08, 2010