You stare into the bathroom mirror with your aging mother in the next room calling for breakfast. You don’t like the reflection you see. You’re tired, on edge, and you need to eat, too. You’ve barely had the chance to put in some dry shampoo and brush your hair. You’re feeling caregiver stress … and it’s not even 9 a.m. Monday.
Don’t worry. It’s natural. Caregiving (or care partnering, as we prefer to call it) is a labor of love. It’s hard — very hard. You know this too well. How many times have you taken a deep breath and trudged forward? No matter how exhausted you are. No matter how often self-care and family tasks take a backseat. No matter how you feel that day.
How to Cope with Caregiver Stress
An overwhelming number of care partners experience stress, physical and emotional decline, and worse as a result of their responsibilities. According to studies:
- 10% of primary care partners report bodily stress, overexertion and even injury from physical tasks
- Nearly half have chronic health conditions
- Nearly three-quarters have missed regular medical appointments
- 58% have worse eating habits than prior to beginning care-partner tasks
Believe me, I know. Caregiver stress in good moments and bad accompanies every daily decision, just around every corner, waiting to overwhelm you steadily over time or without notice. No, you don’t love your loved one any less. You go great lengths because you care deeply enough to walk this journey alongside them.
Here are some ways to cope with caregiver stress to be happy and healthy yourself along the care-partner path.
1. Build a Life-Care Plan
Care partnering without a plan can lead to confusion, aggravation and, at times, poor care outcomes. Whether they’re an elder with advanced-stage cancer or a spouse with early onset dementia, a great life-care plan prepares you and your loved one for the days, months and years ahead. Ideally, you would build a care-partner team including everyone from immediate family to medical professionals.
A life-care plan establishes who does what and when. Most importantly, it ensures the elder maintains control over decisions as long as reasonable or responsible. It lays out, in detail:
- Daily responsibilities
- Doctor appointments
- Financial/legal decisions
- Respite care (relief or equally distributing tasks)
- End-of-life/hospice care
- & more
A life-care plan may include details from who does laundry and meals and who executes medical power of attorney and even when your loved one wants to sit on the patio to watch the sunset. It’s a living, breathing document that can be changed at any time alongside evolving realities. A well-considered plan reduces caregiver stress by listing responsibilities while eliminating ambiguity and potential conflict.
2. Do Your Best
You’re not superhuman, although it may feel as if everyone expects you to be. You’re not alone in feeling you have the world on your shoulders — even if you can consistently rely upon a care-partner team to pitch in.
There will be days you’re not your best. You may forget an appointment or leave the roast in the oven a few minutes too long. There may even be days when your care partners are less than appreciative of the effort (or an elder is incapable of expressing gratitude due to a medical condition).
That’s OK. You know what it takes to help your loved one — and to take the reins, when appropriate. (Helpful hint: Every day is a new day to make a positive impact.)
3. Accept (and Ask For) Help
According to Pew Research, there are 40.4 million unpaid caregivers in the United States. Each selflessly devotes themselves to their loved one’s needs, taking time off work, away from things they love, often disregarding their own health needs without a dime in return. What’s more, Pew says 12% of parents of children 18 and under also provide unpaid care to an elder — or two!
You could cut the care-partner tension with a knife. Women disproportionately carry most of these responsibilities, and as you likely know, when it comes to caring for your own children or aging parent, no one can do it better than you.
That may be true, and it may be hard to surrender control of primary care-partner tasks. But formal and informal respite care can give you a much-needed break. You may hire a respite care agency to provide home care including:
- Home chores
- Medical care
- Companionship (or supervision, if necessary)
An informal respite scenario could involve contacting another in the care-partner team, or a relative or close friend, to stop by briefly so you can leave to run errands, get some fresh air or socialize. Care partners commonly report feelings of isolation and guilt. But I can’t emphasize this strongly enough: You’re allowed to take a break!
4. Prioritize Your Health & Well-Being
Along similar lines, care partners experiencing stress and burnout often deprioritize their own physical and emotional well-being. We often feel too busy attending to our loved one’s care needs that we forget (or abandon) efforts at self-care like:
- Eating healthy
- Taking medications as prescribed
- Attending regular doctor appointments
- Taking mental-health breaks
Some care partners even actively turn to damaging habits like drinking and substance abuse to numb the pain or “manufacture” energy. Don’t deprioritize your own health needs. Get yourself on a schedule to take meds, eat healthy, exercise and visit your doctor. It may not feel like it, but as mentioned above, there are always others who can step in as you walk away briefly for yourself.
Socialization and movement are key to good health — both physically and mentally. Visit a friend, grab a drink, take a walk, meditate. Anything to stay connected and mindful to yourself, those you love outside the care-partner relationship, and the rest of the world.
5. Accept the Inevitable
Your loved one will die. It’s a fact of life, no matter how many thousands of hours you spend feeding, bathing, talking with, reading to, providing meds, driving to and from appointments, or simply sitting and enjoying each other’s company.
Sometimes primary care-partners and teams can provide enough quality care to extend an elder’s good times for many years. But even the best care and companionship can’t stop the onslaught of terminal conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or congestive heart failure. Accept the inevitable and focus on the positives — that you care deeply and you are doing everything possible to provide comfort and stability for your loved one and any other care partners.
Dealing with Caregiver Stress Takes Self Care and Preparation
There’s no secret formula for being a great care partner for an elder loved one. Caregiver stress and burnout happens to anyone who spends a significant amount of time prioritizing another’s needs. There’s no shame in that, and there are numerous resources out there to balance responsibilities with personal needs.
Planning ahead and preparing is key to handling both predictable and unpredictable. Have these conversations early with your loved one to avoid stress and uncertainty later.
If you need help, Caregiver Support and Resources, LLC has over 25 years of experience with all aspects of life-care planning and team building, as well as Medicaid planning (with asset protection) and patient advocacy for individuals with terminal illnesses such as dementia. We are happy to provide referrals and guide the process in a caring and compassionate way.