Being the caregiver to an aging parent may be one of the toughest family roles imaginable. The task can be as demanding as watching a small child, with the added heartbreak of seeing mom or dad decline…plus the challenge of navigating the changing parent-child dynamic. But there is hope: stress can always be managed. Here are a few tips to use during those times when you feel like it’s all too much.
First, do not attempt to become a lone ranger. One of the greatest areas of stress comes from the feeling of taking on more than we can handle, and that is as true in the caregiving role as it is in other areas of our lives. Other relatives may be both willing and able to help. You may also be surprised to find that those outside the family, such as family friends or neighbors, may also be there to lend a hand. It is important to remember that aside from the task of caring for your aging loved one, there are necessary tasks related to caregiving, and having someone else shoulder those for a while may help you build in some much needed time for yourself.
Second, schedule in your “me” time. One of the greatest challenges family caregivers have is the overwhelming tendency to neglect their own needs in favor of their loved one. It is critical for caregivers to schedule some non-negotiable time to participate in activities that stimulate and interest them, because caregiving can (and often does) demand a significant amount of time and can deplete an individual both physically and emotionally. Schedule such activities as an exercise class, a movie, date night with a significant other, a massage, dinner with friends, taking classes on a subject of interest, etc… By doing so, the caregiver remains in touch with his or her own life.
Third, pay attention to your body. While most caregivers begin their roles in an overall state of good health, statistics show that they are more likely to develop symptoms of depression, anxiety, obesity, and weaker immune response as time goes on. Exercise is a particularly effective method of de-stressing the body, with the added bonus of boosting overall energy levels. Getting outside for fresh air can also be highly invigorating. All the great advice we give our loved ones — about eating balanced meals, drinking plenty of water and getting adequate rest — are just great rules of thumb for everyone to live by… including caregivers.
Fourth, building in a support system can be very beneficial. Providing care for an aging loved one brings forth a flood of emotions. After all, it is during this time that the caregiver witnesses the frailty and physical decline of the person whom they have always looked to for their own care. Seeking the services of a psychotherapist or joining a support group (through a church, synagogue, or local agency on aging), caregivers can often receive sound advice on how to cope during this emotionally taxing period. It is important also for the caregiver to not place unrealistic demands upon themselves but to simply do the very best they can.
Finally, cherish every moment. Glean the wisdom of these years and forgive any past disappointments you may be harboring against your loved one. Resolve any issues that may still linger, and commit to enjoying each precious moment available. Remember to be kind to others, understanding that each person operates the best they can with the knowledge they have. Be gentle even when expectations go unfulfilled. With a slight shift in perspective, you may find — as others have — much greater enjoyment of life’s simplest gifts as an unexpected bonus from caregiving.