Question: I need help coping with the endless stress of caregiving. What can I do?
Dr. Amy: There is no question that caregiving can cause stress, exhaustion, and depression. And if you have to do everything yourself without support or relief, this can harm your health and make it harder for you to do a good job of caring for your loved one. Are you familiar with the story of the teacher who holds up a glass of water and asks her students how much the glass weighs? After students guess different weights, the teacher says, “it depends.” Her point is that if you hold a glass of water for a few minutes, it’s no strain at all. But if you hold it for a few hours, your arm will hurt. And if you carry it for a day, the weight becomes unbearable. It not the absolute weight of the burden that matters, it’s about how long we carry it without rest.
It sounds like you need someone to help you with your caregiving work. You also need emotional support. Where to begin? I encourage you to break this challenge down into smaller, more manageable parts so you avoid feeling overwhelmed. In spare minutes here and there, make a list of everything you do for the person you are caring for. Organize these tasks by topic, such as: Personal care and grooming; housework; shopping/errands; doctors/ medications; providing entertainment and emotional support. Also make a list for yourself. What are all the tasks you do to maintain your home and family? Once you have these two lists completed, write down beside each task the name of a friend or family member who could help you. Everyone goes to the grocery store, for example, so it’s easy for a family member or friend to pick up groceries for you while they are doing their own shopping.
Are you reluctant to ask for help? Or perhaps you are angry at family and friends who seem not to realize that you need help? In today’s hectic world, most of the time people are just caught up in their own busy lives. They assume that if you are not asking for help you must have everything under control. As a caregiver, it’s obvious to you that you need help. Surprisingly, it is not always obvious to others. I encourage you to ask for help.
I once met a woman who told me she had seven brothers and sisters, but she got no support from them and was completely exhausted. When I asked her if she had asked them for help, she said “No—they should know I need help without being told and ask me what I need them to do!” I told her that that’s probably true and then asked her if she wanted to be right, or happy. I then asked this woman what one thing would make her life easier. She said that if someone would come over on Tuesday night, she could go out and have some time to herself. I asked if she would be willing to ask one of her brothers and sisters to do this. She said yes. When I met her the following week, she seemed much happier and more relaxed. She had asked her brother if he would come over on Tuesday nights and he had said he’d be happy to. He came over, she went out, and just that little break seemed to have transformed her. I said, “There are six more nights in the week and you have six other siblings. You may never be home again!”
The point is to look at what is causing you the most stress and see if you can organize support to eliminate or minimize the stress. I hope that with help from friends, family, and community service groups you can organize enough task support to make things more manageable.
Where you cannot eliminate the stress, you need emotional support to help you cope. Just sharing your struggles and having someone listen to you with a sympathetic ear can make the world of difference. Do you have good friends you can call? Are there support groups in your community? Can you join an online support group? Often, support is organized by disease state. If the person you are caring for suffers from heart trouble, call the Heart and Stroke Foundation. If it’s dementia, call the Alzheimer’s Association. I encourage you to reach out for help. Good luck.
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