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Posted: May 24, 2007

Spousal Caregiving

Tips for Taking Care of the Caregiver

Bill Andrew

If you have been a caregiver for any length of time, you know it is not all "fun and games." Far from it; caregiving is work -- a full-time job -- a difficult and often frustrating full-time job.

In many cases, this is a 24/7 job that is not only difficult and frustrating, but often thankless. You and I have made the commitment to provide a high level of quality care for our spouses. However, while we have dedicated ourselves to providing this high level of quality care for our respective spouses, we often do so at the risk of our own personal health.

As regular readers of this column already know, I have been the 24/7 caregiver for my wife, Carol, who is afflicted with late-stage Alzheimer's disease, for almost 13 years. One thing I learned the hard way is that I need to take care of myself if I want to continue to provide quality care for Carol.

When I read a recent article in USA WEEKEND Magazine about "taking care of the caregiver" by Dr. Andrew Weil, I thought it would be good idea to share his caregiver tips with you, the readers of this column.

"It is not all about the chronically ill or disabled person", says this well-known holistic doctor. "Too often the caregiver is overlooked since their commitment to their loved one often leaves them exposed to becoming ill or disabled themselves -- like with back pain."

According to Dr. Weil, caregivers need to focus on their own personal well-being while they devote time, energy, and emotional reserves in taking care of their loved one. If they don't, they risk significant consequences, many of which can affect their own personal health.

The National Family Caregivers Association reports that more than 50 million caregivers provide care for their loved ones. With this in mind, Dr. Weil has developed ways for the caregivers to properly maintain their own body and spirit throughout the caregiving process. To polish your personal "bedside manner," Dr. Weil suggests the following tips to maintain your own body and spirit while seeing your loved one through their illness or disability:

1. Put yourself high on the priority list. While your top priority is your loved one, another top priority is you as the caregiver. If you give everything you can possibly give -- and then try to give some more you will eventually hit a wall. Some people do not want to appear "selfish," but this would be far from the case. Dr. Weil notes that the human heart takes oxygen from the blood for itself first in order to pump its own arteries. If it didn't do that, the heart would not be able to support the rest of the body. Caregivers need to think of themselves that way. If they don't take care of themselves, they won't be able to take care of their loved ones.

2. Realize you may experience resentment. It is perfectly natural for a caregiver who spends countless hours taking care of a loved one to suffer both an emotional and physical toll. The caregiver tends to resent the loved one -- or at least the situation. But the caregiver should not feel ashamed about this emotion. The best thing to do is acknowledge that this is the way you feel and discuss it with a trusted, understanding family member or friend -- not with the loved one who is ill or disabled.

3. De-stress yourself. Whenever the "wall of anxiety" feels like it is going to crash down on you, find some simple deep-breathing exercises that you can do in a minute or two. For many of us, such deep-breathing brings instant relief. Yoga works for some while relaxing music works for others. Anything that you can do to reduce the harmful effects of stress will help you.

4. Don’t forsake sound nutritional habits. It is easy to get out of the habit of good eating, especially when the focus is on caring for the loved one. The big temptation for the caregiver is to grab fast food or succumb to unhealthful eating binges because of their emotional state. Your healthful diet should not become a casualty of your loved one's personal situation; you should never allow your proper nutritional intake to slip.

5. Don't forget that exercise matters. You may feel you are getting lots of exercise by taking care of your loved one. True, to an extent. Getting your heart pumping will help to keep you energized and keep you feeling more upbeat. Walk whenever you can. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Take a 15-minute walk at a brisk pace whenever you can. It will not only relieve the stress and tension but will also provide you with a break from caregiving activities.

6. Be careful with alcohol. Often, the new caregiver will resort to alcohol to cope with the stress and tension of caregiving. Be mindful of whether your habits are changing in this regard. Remember that excessive alcohol can disrupt your sleep patterns and compromise your caregiving abilities.

7. Plan something to look forward to. This should be a "no-brainer;" you must simply take some time for yourself. Get some respite support so you can get away for a while by yourself -- without your loved one. Go to a movie, read a book for an hour or two, work out in the yard, do your shopping, go to a concert -- just get away from your caregiving environment for several hours. You won't be sorry; you will come back refreshed and a renewed perspective. Establish a network of family and friends who can step in when you need them. Go to a support group for networking with your caregiver peers. We all need a break at some point in our lives; this is especially important for caregivers.

8. Find someone who has successfully done what you are doing. The most obvious way of doing this is to join a support group that deals with the illness or disability that afflicts your loved one. The sharing of information and inspiration that comes from the "sharing and caring" of a support group can help you overcome the problems you may be encountering. Personally, I’m a big fan of support groups, so much so that I have facilitated one for Alzheimer's disease and related dementias for the past six years.

9. Be prepared to say "goodbye." Although we, as caregivers, want to be as optimistic as possible about the full recovery of our loved one from an illness or disability, we must be realistic about the final outcome. We are all "born to die" -- none of us will escape this world alive! As caregivers for our loved ones, we must prepare ourselves emotionally for this inescapable outcome. Obviously, hospice is an alternative in end-of-life situations. We all need to have advance directives in place to smooth this final event when it happens. We must be prepared for this eventuality which will inevitably make this transition easier on both you and your loved one.

I have personally addressed each of the above during my caregiving journey. Being prepared doesn't cost you anything but it sure saves you a lot of heartaches and headaches along the way. How about you? If you would like to share your experiences with other readers of this column, drop me a line at ASKBill@caregivershome.com and I will share them in a future column. Please provide your full name and city/state. In the column, I will only use your first name and the first initial of your last name. Thanks.

WORDS TO CARE BY . . .

"Without a sense of caring,

there can be no sense of community."

Anthony J. D'Angelo (1972-)

 


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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