When the Caregiver Has a Chronic Condition

As a family caregiver for a combination of seven elders over a period of 20 years, I’ve had more than my share of taking care of others while I have been in pain. Still, a caregiver who is caring for vulnerable elders doesn’t give up easily. Ideally, if the caregiver is sick, other arrangements should be made for the elder. Realistically, that kind of help can be hard to come by so we all-too-often work when we should be resting.

I’ve lived with chronic migraines since I was 15, due to a P.E. class injury. I know what it is to quickly excuse myself to run to the bathroom and vomit, then return and try to look as though nothing is wrong. I know what it is to reek of different rubs — some herbal, some commercial — in order to function. I know what it is to tell my mother that I was fine even though she could see that my eyes were barely focusing. Even then, most of the time, I did carry on.

A double whammy here is that chronic stress is a problem for most caregivers and stress can be a trigger for many people who live with chronic migraines. It is for me.

The fact is that whether caregivers have migraines, severe arthritis, asthma, or any other ailment, if they are still functioning better than the person or people for whom they care, they carry on. It’s what we do.

What about self-care for the caregiver?

My story suggests that I completely neglected myself during this intense time and didn’t take time to care for myself, which, to a large extent is true. However, I did have my methods of practicing self-care.

Since my elders didn’t live with me, I had some time most evenings to use ice and/or heat. I had time to read a good book — my best form of relaxation. I had my children to go home to, even though they too needed care, but that was different: Since they were no longer infants or toddlers, the needs at home were fewer than they once had been.

Unlike me, many caregivers care for an elder or a spouse who lives in the same home. If you are fortunate, your care receivers may be cognitively able to understand that this is a bad day for you and you may not be as helpful as you’d like. If this is the case, tell them that you are sick, or that you have a migraine, or whatever your issue is.

If you are truly fortunate, your care receiver may be able to help you by bringing you a cup of tea or an ice pack so that even though this person needs your help for many things, he or she can in return help you. One thing that I’ve learned is that your care receivers can benefit from helping you in whatever way they can. So let them.

Being a care receiver all the time can be burdensome and for some, humiliating. Therefore, even though you are the caregiver, ask your care receiver for some help if this is realistic. You might find that you both feel better after a brief role exchange.

Have a backup plan

If your situation is dire, such as when your care receiver must be lifted or carried, or your care receiver is cognitively unable to be trusted to stay safe without your constant attention, then you need to call in the troops. If you have a chronic issue, it’s essential that you plan for this. Set up a system where you have back-up, if not from family or friends, then from an in-home help agency.

No caregiver is impervious to illness. It’s the frequency and degree of your own health issues that will determine what your back-up plan should be. The time could come when you can no longer be the primary caregiver because your own health needs are too great. This too must be considered.

Caregivers aren’t saints and should not be martyrs. We’re tough. We can keep going when we have to. But we deserve to receive care ourselves when we need it, even if that is simply a little time off for some self-care.

Carol Bradley Bursack
Meet Our Writer
Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at mindingourelders.com.