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Taking a vacation from caregiving: Part 2

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Caregivers can get so caught up in daily tasks and obligations that they don't even notice that the ongoing stress of caregiving may be causing them physical and emotional problems. How do caregivers stay tuned in to their bodies, minds and spirits, so they know when we need a break? Often a short vacation from the responsibilities of caregiving can be helpful to both the caregiver and the care receiver.

Whether you are giving care to your elder in their home, your home or have some other arrangement, caregiving is a full-time job. Even when you aren't giving direct care, running errands or slogging through health insurance red tape, you have your elder's needs on your mind. Will he fall again? Will she remember her medications on time? Will they eat decently?

While most of us take on caregiving out of love, many of us find the full-time mental and emotional stress of caregiving wearing. This wear on our body and mind can put us at risk for our own health problems. Statistics vary, but most show upward of 30% of the caregivers die - yes die - before the person they are caring for. And that isn't just elderly caregivers. That includes adult children who die because of anything from undetected cancers to suicide. Don't let stress overload get this bad.

What Signals Stress Overload?
• You are skipping your own physicals
• You are isolating
• You are drinking and/or eating too much for good health
• You are short tempered with your spouse, your kids and the elder you are caring for

Let's look at these signals one by one:

You Are Skipping Your Own Physicals

I personally know two caregivers who are cancer survivors. I also had a friend who died of breast cancer. All three of these women had cancers that could have been caught early, but they put off mammograms because the whole process was too much bother. They were healthy, right? Their checkups could wait. Would they have gotten cancer in the first place had caregiver stress not been part of their lives? That we'll never know.

When I was at the peak of my eldercare years, I put off a pap smear two years in a row, and a mammogram one year. With five elders to care for at the time, I spent so much time in clinics and scheduling doctor appointments that I couldn't bear the thought of picking up that phone and making one more appointment - for me. The idea of finding time to actually go to my own appointments seemed impossible. I was more fortunate than the friends I mention above. I didn't develop cancer. But I could have had a cancer growing and not had a clue until it went from a fairly simple case to one that needed hard core chemotherapy, which may or may not have worked. I was not smart. I hope you are smarter.

If you can't leave your elder alone, contact an in-home health agency and schedule some time with them for respite care. Use that time for your appointments and, while you're at it, use the remaining time for some fun. Both of these steps are good for your health.

You Are Isolating

Whether it's because we are too tired from our long days of giving care to others, or because we feel our friends are no longer interested in us because our lives have been overtaken by caring for our elders, caregivers often isolate.

We don't do this on purpose, and generally the process of isolation is just that - a process. It happens slowly. We start making excuses, many of them well founded, when we are asked out by friends. We then find our friends get tired of being turned down when they offer invitations, so they quit asking. Meanwhile, we aren't living in the moment. We are planning what we need to do the next day, or regretting some thought or action from the day before. We often don't even realize how isolated we are.

Socialization is good for people, as we are made to be social creatures. Even those of us who are not extremely social are designed to have a given amount of interaction with other humans. For our own health, and often that of the care receiver, we should have at least some type of social life. How do we accomplish this? Again, by reaching out for help.

We can hire an in-home care agency or investigate volunteer services, such as Senior Companions, to come in and take care of our elder for a time. Or, we can find a good adult day care center and start a regular day a week, or even half-day, of care for our elder. Then, we can take this time to go to coffee or supper with a friend. The point is, we do something to break the isolation. Talking with other caregivers in a support group, or even online qualifies, as well.

You are drinking and/or eating too much for your health

We humans generally seek comfort. When we don't find comfort in social outlets or other appropriate ways, we sometimes seek solace in food or alcohol. Neither is a bad source of comfort now and then. But when drinking becomes a refuge for our emotional pain, or food becomes such a comfort that we endanger our health, we are using these substances for the wrong reasons. We may need a break in our daily lives so we can get back in touch with our true feelings. Recognizing that we are eating or drinking too much for our own good can help us realize when we need to take a break from our duties.

You Are Short Tempered

Have you been snapping at your family lately? Have you been short with the elder who you have vowed to care for? Either is a sign that you are stressed and need a vacation from caregiving.

Take Your Own Emotional Temperature

Watch for these signs of emotional stress in yourself. If you can't identify your stress triggers, ask a close friend or family member to assess you, or you should seek counseling. Listen to that person if he or she says you are stressed and close to burning out. You probably are.

Even the thought of taking a vacation from caregiving can bring on guilt for many caregivers. How do we cope with that? Part 2 of this series will look into options for freeing your mind of unearned guilt as you plan ways to take short breaks, or even a real vacation.