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Posted: July 14, 2005

Spousal Caregiving

How to Prevent Caregiver Burnout -- We Have Tips

Bill Andrew

What is commonly called caregiver burnout is often the direct result of stress induced by caregiving activities performed for and with a loved one -- in our case, our spouse. As you are aware, caregiving is more than just hand-holding. It is difficult and exhausting work, both physically and mentally, and you must have a stress management plan in place if you are to survive the rigors of spousal caregiving.

What Is Stress?

Stress has been defined as a physical, mental, or emotional strain in response to a demand, a pressure, or a disturbance. It can be a direct result of an event, occasional strains, daily strains, or chronic strains. It is important to remember that stress is a natural physical reaction that can be controlled to produce energy, create excitement, or initiate creativity. In today's world, stress has become the cause of many of our society's ailments and illnesses -- some real and some imagined.

When your body senses a threat, such as those described above, it stimulates a physiologic stress response called fight-or-flight and releases adrenaline into your bloodstream. For early man, this stress response was essential for survival. Today, this stress response can be both a blessing and a curse.It can warn us of impending danger -- or it can produce health problems such as:

  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Backaches
  • Depression
  • Moodiness
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Indigestion
  • Trembling
  • Teeth grinding
  • Jaw clenching
  • Sweaty hands
  • Changes in appetite
  • Dizziness
  • Stomach aches
  • Exhaustion

Over-stimulation of this stress response can also cause significant physical health problems including cardiovascular injury, worsening of diabetic symptoms, degradation of the immune system, and similar problems.

This stress response can cause your adrenal glands to release large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol -- the two key stress hormones.

These hormone-induced changes are helpful when we are actually threatened with danger and may actually help us in the occasional caregiving-induced stressful situation. But if we experience them all day long, day after day, week after week, they can become a major health problem. When stress hormones are produced repeatedly because of chronic stress, your body is kept in a constant state of "red alert." Chronic stress can result in significant physiological problems.

What Can We Do About It?

Stress is a part of modern life -- and definitely a by-product of caregiving. How you and I handle stress depends upon our attitude towards it. Once we become aware of our respective personal symptoms of stress, or can identify the situations that provoke feelings of stress, we can use various stress management strategies to deal with those situations as they arise -- and maybe even enjoy the potential beneficial effects of stress. By developing coping strategies, you and I may be able to avoid reaching the point of exhaustion and burnout. You will know that burnout has occurred if you become numb to your spouse's needs and feelings and just don't care anymore. Don't let it go that far; if you do, it may be difficult or impossible to recover -- and then what happens to your spouse?

The following indications of caregiver stress are presented for your consideration. If you have experienced some or all of these, you really need to seek ways of reducing caregiver stress.>

  • Denial about the disease and its effects on the person who has been diagnosed. "I know that Mom is going to get better."
  • Anger at the person with the illness, that no effective treatments or cures exist, and that people do not understand what is going on. "If he asks me that question one more time, I will scream!"
  • Social withdrawal from friends and activities that once brought pleasure. "I don't care about getting together with the neighbors or friends anymore."
  • Anxiety about facing another day and what the future holds. "What happens when he needs more care than I can provide?"
  • Depression begins to break your spirit and affects your ability to cope. "I don't care anymore."
  • Exhaustion makes it nearly impossible to complete necessary daily tasks. "I'm too tired for this."
  • Sleeplessness caused by a never-ending list of concerns. "What if she wanders out of the house or falls and hurts herself?"
  • Irritability leads to moodiness and triggers negative responses and reactions. "Leave me alone!"
  • Lack of concentration makes it difficult to perform familiar tasks. "I was so busy that I forgot we had an appointment."
  • Health problems begin to take their toll -- both mentally and physically. "I can't remember the last time I felt good."

Some of the ways to reduce caregiver stressinclude the following:

  • Know what resources are available in our community and use them.
  • Educate yourself about your spouse's disease and related caregiving techniques.
  • Get help from family, friends, and community resources -- perhaps they can provide respite care to relieve you on occasion.
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low in saturated fat. Consider various supplements or glyconutritionals.
  • Get enough rest and a good night's sleep.
  • Try to get physical exercise on a regular basis -- this is a great stress reliever. For example, walking will relieve stress with "no pain."
  • Try deep-breathing exercises which you can do while caregiving.
  • Manage your level of stress by consulting a physician and using various relaxation techniques. Get regular checkups and counseling if needed.
  • Stay in touch with friends and continue social activities as available.
  • Accept changes as they occur. Go with the flow.
  • Advance legal and financial planning will relieve concerns which may induce stress.
  • Be realistic about what you can and can not do.
  • Give yourself credit for what you have accomplished.
  • Don't feel guilty if you lose your temper and patience.
  • Don't feel guilty if you can't do everything on your own.
  • Check out faith-based groups for support -- perhaps in your church.
  • Attend support group meetings with your caregiver peers.

In my 11 years of spousal caregiving, I have personally addressed all of the above -- perhaps that is why I am still going strong as is my spouse of 54 years, Carol. If it works for me, perhaps it will work for you.

If you would like to share your spousal caregiving experiences with other readers of this column, please e-mail me at ASKBill@caregivershome.com. You can also ask any questions that concern you -- however, I can only share my personal experiences with you and can not provide any advice that would require specific licensure.

WORDS TO CARE BY . . .

"A wise man should consider that
health is the greatest of human blessings,
and learn how, by his own thought,
to derive benefit from his illnesses."
Hippocrates (460-377 BC)


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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© 2005 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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