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Meaningful time off can help you avoid caregiver burnout

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Nearly all caregivers need time for a break in their routine. However, what is a pleasant break or even a source of support for one caregiver may be just one more thing to do for another. For respite time and meaningful alone time, caregivers need to think about their own personality and use their time away from caregiving for meaningful refreshment. To each his or her own should, in my opinion, be the rule.

Support Groups Can Be a Life Saver

First, let me say that I believe in support groups comprised of people who are undergoing similar difficulties, whether that means grief support groups, addiction support groups or caregiver support groups. These days, there are countless support groups to attend in person and even more to join online. Which works best for a person is an individual matter.

Other Sources Serve as Support

I also believe that people can get the support they need from other sources, such as spiritual groups, family and friends and volunteer organizations. Some caregivers don't feel the need for outside support as much as they feel the need for time to be alone. The latter group is where I fit during my two decades of caring for multiple elders.

The proliferation of online support has been fairly recent. My heavy-duty caregiving of up to five elders at once, combined with motherhood and a full-time job (for part of that time), came at a time when online support wasn't so easy to find. There were support groups in town, namely those for people caring for elders with dementia, though they would accept anyone. More than one well-meaning social worker or nurse from the nursing home where several of my elders resided suggested these support groups to me.

Each Caregiver Has a Unique Ways of Relaxing and Refreshing

My thoughts when they offered this advice? "You've got to be nuts! When would I find the time to go to a support group? I hardly have time to, um, use the bathroom." Of course, I'd smile and thank them for their advice. They did mean well and they knew I was under a lot of stress. But I am, by nature, a person who needs quite a bit of time alone. Solitude is the only way I can center myself and relax. I enjoy the help of a good book. But, mostly, I like some very quiet alone time. Then, my batteries recharged, I can attack most any task with energy and enthusiasm.

I do think one reason that I didn't feel the need to go to support group meetings was that I threw myself into writing a book on caregiving and spent time interviewing other caregivers in the process. I've joked that these weren't really interviews. I'd just meet with the person and ask, "So, how is it going?" For the next three hours I'd hear how it was going. They literally dumped. They were relieved to talk to someone who understood. When I got home from the interview, I had to sift through many pages of notes to actually make their story coherent. Perhaps I was "going to a support group" without even knowing it? Hmm. Nice psychological thought to ponder.

I've talked with many caregivers who have found support groups a lifesaver. Many of them go online, as that is more convenient and one doesn't have to leave the elder alone to get this respite. Other's find a neighbor or friend to look after the elder for a time, so they can go to a group and talk in person.

I've also talked with many caregivers who found their respite in exercise, such as going to a gym or training for a marathon. Some get their respite in smaller doses, say a trip to the beauty parlor because they enjoy a little pampering.

We are all very different in our needs. Getting my hair cut is just one more duty for me, where others love the attention and find it relaxing. Exercise is something I force myself to do. Social occasions can be wearisome to me. However, a few special friends are relaxing to be around. Books have always been one of my favorite escapes. And yes, blessed solitude keeps me reasonably sane.

Decide For Yourself What Is Best for You

Make it a point to not let anyone, no matter how well meaning, dictate how you get some respite from caregiving. Just be sure to do something for yourself that you enjoy. If your elder can be left alone for a bit, it's easier. If not - well, see if a friend, someone in your faith community or a volunteer can look after your elder for a bit. Or hire some in-home help for a brief period each week, so you can get away mentally and/or physically, and recharge your batteries. By doing so your may avoid the well-traveled road on caregiver depression, or even burnout.

If you find yourself feeling depressed, be sure to see a doctor. Not all caregiver depression or feelings of caregiver burnout can be taken care of through support or even alone time. Sometimes professional help is needed. Get that help if you are even wondering about yourself. Your care receiver is counting on you to stay well.