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Caring for someone else?

Take care of yourself too

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May 22nd, 2012

The Alzheimer s Association reports that over 15 million people in the U.S. provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer s and other dementias. That number doesn t include those who care for loved ones with cancer, Parkinson s disease, heart disease, stroke, or any other debilitating or terminal illness. According to the American Medical Association, family caregivers are responsible for 80% of this unpaid care. Caregivers are the heroes in our society, says Marina Bravo, LCSW, CMC, clinical social worker and supervisor at United HomeCare, Inc., in Miami, Fla. It s absolutely essential that our heroes stay healthy.

A heavy burden

Caregivers may experience problems with their physical, emotional, and spiritual health, says Cheryl Ziemba, M.D., medical director at Crest, an Erickson Living community in Pompton Plains, N.J. You may experience problems such as chronic fatigue, headaches, increased blood pressure, or worsening of an already existing medical problem. Feelings of anger and sadness may be common. You may feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and unable to make decisions, Ziemba says. Some people have a sense of guilt or feel lonely. Others feel hopeless or angry at God. It isn t wrong to experience these kinds of feelings; everyone copes differently, Bravo says. But if negative feelings persist for more than two weeks, or they interfere with your daily functioning, talk to your doctor or someone else you trust who may be able to help.

Care for yourself

Finding the time or energy to care for your own health may seem like the last thing on your mind. Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it s crucial to your well-being and your ability to care for another person, says Ziemba. You have a responsibility to yourself and your loved one to stay well. It s the same concept as using an oxygen mask on an airplane, she continues. Yours needs to be in place first before you can help someone else. People with health conditions need to be especially vigilant. Don t run out of medications, and keep all health provider appointments, whether it s your primary care doctor, your podiatrist, or your dentist, Ziemba says. Plan your day so that you can eat regularly. Set aside time for physical activity it can help lighten your mood and increase your energy, Ziemba says. Even if you only have a few spare minutes, go for a short walk. Along with enough sleep, rest and relaxation are also essential. Find at least some time for a hobby you enjoy, or socialize with other people, whether it s at home or for a brief outing, Ziemba advises. This is when respite care can come in handy. Respite care is hard for some people to accept you may feel like you are turning over your loved one to strangers, Bravo says. But I find that people almost always have positive experiences with respite care services, especially those that are facility based, whether it s adult daycare or assisted living programs. Home-based respite care is also an option. Respite is good for your loved one. It can provide a change of scenery and an opportunity to interact with different people. But just as important, it is good for you. I have seen such a sense of relief in caregivers who use respite services, Bravo says. You can do whatever you want with that free time to give your mind and body a break.

Reach out

One of the biggest challenges for caregivers is recognizing when they need help, Bravo says. It can be especially hard for someone caring for a spouse because both of you have been self-sufficient for so long. Ask for specific help from family, friends, or neighbors, such as assistance with cooking, cleaning, shopping, little errands, or yard work. Some people may say no, and sometimes people may offer to do things you don t need or want. But if you don t ask for specific help, you may not get what you need, Bravo advises. As your loved one s health changes, doing everything alone can become too much for one person, Bravo says. Your doctor or a social worker may be able to set up a team meeting in which everyone involved can come up with some solutions.

Don t go it alone

Caregivers may isolate themselves at a time when they need social support more than ever, Ziemba says. Support can be formal or informal. With the Internet, it s much easier to connect with others, Bravo says. There are several great resources for caregivers online. A face-to-face caregiver support group can be your biggest help. You can get insights from people who have experienced the same problems you have, and you might be able to help someone else, Bravo explains. You can find out about resources you may not know about.

The joy in caregiving

The demands of daily caregiving do not necessarily mean it s a negative experience. Caregiving can give you a new, positive outlook on life. You may focus more on what you value or discover strengths you didn t know you had, Ziemba says. More people learn to live in the moment and enjoy the little things, Bravo says. Maybe your loved one took care of you, and now it s your opportunity to give back.

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