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Posted: December 07, 2006

Spousal Caregiving

Believe In Yourself and Take Charge of Your Life

Bill Andrew

As a spousal caregiver, I am sure that you, like many of us, were thrust into that job without any preparation. Regardless of how you became a spousal caregiver, the immersion most likely included elements of surprise and emotionally demanding moments that followed the moment of crisis when you realized that you were a caregiver for your spouse.

Amidst the reorientation of your daily schedule, the search for resources to assist you and your spouse, the fears about what the future would hold, and the day-to-day challenges of caregiving, you probably never really stopped to think about what happened. You also probably did not have time to devise a plan that takes into account the health and well-being of all concerned, including yourself. If you are like most caregivers, you just went on "automatic pilot" and started to do what you had to do.

The National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA), in partnership with a number of companies that are concerned about the health of family caregivers, developed educational materials in honor of National Family Caregivers Month 2006. The ideas discussed in this week’s column are based on those materials and apply to spousal caregivers as well. NFCA educates, supports, empowers, and speaks up for the more than 50 million Americans who care for loved ones with a chronic illness or disability -- no matter what their age or diagnosis. They can be reached at 800-896-3650 or www.thefamilycaregiver.org.

Somewhere along the line, it is vitally important that you stop what you are doing, take a deep breath, and try to gain some control over the situation rather than letting the situation control you. In other words, you need to become proactive in everything that you do as a caregiver as opposed to being in a constant reactive mode. Obviously, you can’t control everything that happens to your spouse or to you personally. However, while you do not have that power, you do have the power to make rational proactive choices about just how you are going to deal with the various caregiving circumstances that you and your spouse will encounter in your caregiving journey. Here are four suggestions for your consideration.

Maintain a positive mental attitude. Perhaps the most important choice you will have to make as a spousal caregiver is just how you are going to approach life from here on out. The choice is yours; you can drink the sour juice of lemons or you can make the lemons into lemonade. I prefer the choice of "when life hands you a lemon, make it into lemonade" since lemonade is much more acceptable to most people.

Those spousal caregivers who go for the lemonade inevitably end up much happier, are healthier, and are more proactive on behalf of their spouses and themselves. That’s because a positive mental attitude typically impacts positive actions that can be taken -- our inner thoughts drive our outward actions.

Self-pity does not make things any better, but neither does being a Pollyanna. The best balance for coping with the realities of caregiving lies somewhere in between. Being a spousal caregiver is never going to be easy. But how you approach the task on behalf of your spouse is a choice that you can, and should, consciously make. Is the glass half full or half empty? Your decision will set the stage for everything else that you do as a spousal caregiver for your loved one.

Know thy self. Choosing to take charge of your life as a spousal caregiver means you must recognize your own strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. You must also believe in yourself and your ability to be the caregiver for your spouse in spite of yourself. We all have these strengths, weaknesses, and limitations, of course, and they will definitely impact what we can successfully do by ourselves -- and what we will need help with.

For example, are you a petite woman providing care for a heavy-set man? That will certainly have an impact on how much physical care you are capable of providing on your own. Are you a man who has never been in this type of situation before and you are caring for your spouse? Again, you will have to either learn the hard way by doing what you have to do, or solicit assistance from others who are more familiar with the caregiving requirements of a woman.

Are you naturally curious, always wanting to understand things as best you can? If the answer is "yes," then you will probably have an easier time gathering the information that you will need to make the appropriate caregiving choices.

Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations will allow you to establish boundaries that will give you the confidence to say "no" when appropriate and when to say "yes" and ask for help. Many caregivers find it very difficult to ask for help but it is important that you do so when it is needed. You also have to know how to ask for help and where to find it. Knowing yourself and your personal capabilities will make it much easier to do so whether it is with family, friends, neighbors, or various assistance programs available in your community.

For example, respite care gives you some time off to "recharge your batteries" and get things done that might not otherwise get done. Both you and your spouse benefit. Being aware of your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations -- and how they may change as time progresses -- is a vital step in becoming a resourceful, practical, and successful spousal caregiver.

Be proactive. Knowing yourself and understanding your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations is a start, but taking charge of your life as a spousal caregiver should not end there. By also having a positive mental attitude, there are other actions you can take to gain more control over your life. For example, you can either be proactive about the circumstances surrounding your spousal caregiving role, or you can be reactive to the situations that arise. Being proactive means you look ahead and plan for the eventualities that will occur with your loved one and with your caregiving role. It also means trying to prevent crises from happening rather than just letting them happen and reacting at that time.

One important proactive step we can all take is making sure both our spouse and ourselves have all of the legal paperwork necessary for making critical medical decisions. No one likes to deal with these things, especially in a crisis situation, but proactive spousal caregivers make it their business to have these medical and end-of-life decisions made while all concerned are of sound mind and body.

Proactive spousal caregivers usually stay on top of any situation, crisis or not. However, not all of us are naturally proactive and often find it difficult to be so. If being proactive is not your nature, you may need to find a family member or friend who is and who would be willing to assist you in getting the job done. This is critical if you want to feel somewhat in charge of your life and the life of your spouse.

Research your family caregiving situation. Research is another word for being prepared and can take many forms. Of course, the most important type of research you can do is to find out as much as you can about your spouse's illness, condition, or disability.

It has been said that knowledge is power, and being armed with an understanding of what you are dealing with provides you with a powerful tool for discussing your spouse's medical needs with various healthcare professionals. It can transform you from being an uninformed spousal caregiver into a resourceful advocate for your spouse. Significant information can be obtained via the Internet. Doing a Google search will provide a wealth of information for you to digest. Very often, your time with your spouse's doctor precludes an in-depth explanation of your spouse's medical condition and medication protocols. But going in with specific knowledge and questions helps both you and the doctor to determine the best course of action for your spouse.

If you are not computer-literate or do not have access to a computer, you can ask family members or friends to help you do this research. It is an easy way to ask for help -- and get it.

However, research is not only about gathering formal information or gaining knowledge. It is also about gaining an understanding about the various environments that you will encounter as you provide care for your spouse -- doctor offices, hospitals, emergency rooms, adult day care centers, respite care, home care, etc. Gaining an understanding of the rules, regulations, and practices you’ll encounter will make you feel more in command of your caregiving situation. It will also help you to obtain the information that you need, as well as the respect that you deserve, much quicker and with less hassle.

Having a positive mental attitude, knowing thy self (and your strengths, weaknesses, and limitations), being proactive, and gathering information through research -- these are just a few of the things that you can do to take charge of your life as a caregiver for your spouse. What is important is that you recognize that you do have choices and can make the ones that best support you in your spousal caregiving role.

If you would like to share your thoughts regarding the above with other readers of this column, drop me a line at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

WORDS TO CARE BY . . .

"Know then thyself . . ."

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at ASKBill@caregivershome.com.

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© 2006 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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