Whether or not it’s a conscious thought, many of us look at a new year as a time to make changes in our lives. We become energized for a few days. However, most of us are quickly caught up in routine. Whether or not we like the routine, it’s familiar, and the status quo often provides the path of least resistance. Therefore, even if we’re stuck in a life that’s not satisfying, we stay with the familiar. Change seems too hard.
This is a glaring truth that most caregivers recognize. We are providing increasing care for our loved ones who are ill and most likely have a limited amount of time left to live. Our loved one’s quality of life is poor. He or she is often demanding. Many of us have are caring for multiple people which only emphasizes the reality that many caregivers live with - we are on call 24/7.
We repeatedly read articles about caregiver burnout and how we must practice self-care. I’ve written countless articles on that topic myself. Sometimes, I feel like a hypocrite because I know that caregivers often have few choices when it comes to change, and the choices they do have are likely not very attractive. Still, I’d like to suggest some steps that may help some people to think through the year and consider some adjustments. The following are two places that we could possibly make progress.
Changes in caregiving methods
Changes in caregiving methods are difficult. They generally include additional help in some way, whether paid or offered by family members. If a caregiver is even close to burnout, most likely help from the family has already reached its limit or never was available. Paid help, such as in-home care agencies, adult day care, assisted living facilities and of course nursing homes, mean the beginning of the end of financial solvency for many elders. Yet, often this is the only viable choice if the caregiver is to avoid ruining his or her health.
Hiring help is never an easy decision. However, when we balance the mental and physical help of a person who has been a long-term caregiver with the likely fact that eventually the elder’s assets will need to be used for paid help, then it’s often advisable to do this sooner rather than later. Once the caregiver is physically and/or emotionally exhausted, she or he needs to fight to regain personal health as well as make the painful decision to hire help for the elder. This is just one more case where prevention might be better than trying to find a cure.
Changes in how we view ourselves
How we view ourselves is essential to our ability to change caregiving methods. We must stand up for ourselves. That may mean letting your spouse know that you are taking an hour a day for yourself and he or she is completely responsible for the caregiving at that time. Assure your spouse that you’ll return the favor.
Generally, real self-care involves more than one declaration but baby steps are better than nothing. My first baby step - which is still a huge part of retaining some sort of sanity for myself - is getting up very early in the morning to start my day with meditation and/or just some quite time. This may work for you, but perhaps you are a night owl. Work with your body rhythm but try to take time each day to remind yourself that you are an individual, not an extension of your ill loved one. Some would call that centering yourself. Others would simply say to indulge yourself. Labels don’t matter but a little time for you does. Make it a priority.
The other priority that I’d suggest is that you journal. Don’t shriek when you read this or if you do, try not to wake your elder. I’m not suggesting anything major. You can set up a folder on your computer if you don’t want to write in a notebook. The point of this exercise is to get to know yourself intimately and also to allow yourself to vent without fear of judgment. Write down all of your frustrations. Indulge in anger and self-pity. Get it out where you can read it - repeatedly if that helps. Then move on.
Find one thing in your rant that you actually can change and then work on that. Maybe you haven’t seen your own doctor in three years. Call and make an appointment for your physical. Maybe you haven’t seen a close friend for months or longer. Plan one quick coffee date, even if you must beg a relative to elder-sit for one hour. Just do one positive thing for yourself.
Then, make a wish list. What would you do if you could live life any way you want? Dream. Exaggerate. Let that list sit and read it from time to time. Add to the list. Delete some ideas and laugh at others. You may find that while you’re doing this you discover a little more about your true worth. That could be your only gift from this exercise but it’s a gift worth receiving.
Support from other caregivers
If you’re reading this article you have already begun this step. Come back to Healthcentral.com/alzheimers for more support. Ask questions. Offer comments. Write your own sharepost. Also, if it suits your personality, seek in-person support from groups in your community. Your local social service organizations should be able to guide you to an appropriate local group. If you are coping with someone with dementia, seek out a support group for Alzheimer’s/dementia caregivers.
There is no such thing as failure when making resolutions
Decide to make changes as this New Year gets into full swing. Change your mind, throw out ideas, see what works and what doesn’t. Even if you don’t stay with a change, just thinking ideas through may help you realize that you aren’t alone in your caregiving journey.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.