Caring for the caregiver

Caregiving stress has many solutions. Learn resources that can nurture the nurturer.

An adult daughter and elderly mother laughing on a park bench together.
Photo: Dario Valenzuela/Unsplash.

Caregiving can be a full-time job, yet many Americans are assisting with part-time care of a disabled or chronically ill family member while continuing to fulfill their other obligations to families and employers. Most caregivers learn “on the job,” and must rely on local resources garnered through recommendations of hospitals, physicians and others who have been in a similar situation. It is not unusual to find yourself thrust into this work suddenly, unexpectedly and with no preparation.

Many people may not even realize they are caregivers. You are a caregiver if you are helping with the daily needs of someone other than yourself; handling finances, personal care, running errands, assisting with appointments, cooking, cleaning, preparing food, and/or providing emotional support. This caregiving can be rewarding yet stressful. 

If you are a caregiver, you are not alone! According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” there are 53 million caregivers in the U.S. This is an 18% increase from the 43.5 million reported in 2015. The same study shows that the health of caregivers has worsened in the last five years. Nearly a fifth of U.S. caregivers reside with the person they are caring for, 61% of caregivers are women and 61% of caregivers work outside the home. Most caregiving in the U.S. fall on the shoulders of one single caregiver, and 24% of caregivers are caring for more than one person.

When caring for someone else, it is easy to push aside your own needs. The stress that results from failing to take care of your own needs can lead to issues such as anger, sense of loss, social isolation, health issues and emotional distress. How do you know if you are experiencing signs of stress from caregiving? Take a simple self-test from the American Medical Association to see if you have symptoms associated with high levels of emotional or physical stress. The self-test was developed as a guide that can be used to begin having a conversation with your health care provider about the amount of stress you are experiencing as a caregiver.

If you find you are experiencing stress, it can be helpful to make a list of all the caregiving tasks that are causing stress for you. Circle all the items on the over which you have no control, and resolve to let them go.  Look at what is left on the list and focus on items where you have a small degree of control and tackle these items one at a time.

Often, family members and friends want to be of assistance but don’t know what to do. Consider making a second list of simple tasks that others could help you with. Choose a task from that list when someone calls or asks if there is something they can do to help. This list could be as simple as yard work, shopping, running to the pharmacy or making a simple meal for your family.

In addition, it is important that you learn and employ techniques that can assist you in your caregiving role. Caring for the Caregiver and Powerful Tools for Caregivers are two educational programs offered by Michigan State University Extension that focus on providing participants with tools and strategies to take care of themselves by learning to manage their stress, communicate effectively with family members and health care professionals, holding a family meeting, and developing their own self-care plan. Another program that may be beneficial for caregivers is Stress Less with Mindfulness or other Michigan State University Extension Mindfulness for Better Living resources.

If your caregiving experience is going to be long term, it is important to connect with others who are experiencing similar stresses and seek connections from a caregiver support group. Many groups are available that are specific to situations or a diagnosis. Consult a hospital social worker or a physician’s office for information on groups that can provide additional support. Explore services in your community that offer respite care, home care, hospice care and adult day care services. Web resources include The Family Caregiver Alliance, National Alliance for Caregiving and the National Family Caregivers Association.

If the nurturer is taking time to nurture themselves, caregiving can provide rewarding benefits. As you help your loved one, be sure to pay attention to your own health, emotional well-being, family commitments and signs of stress.

Did you find this article useful?