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Caregiver stress can make carers feel trapped

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Caregiver stress is much acknowledged and occurs to some degree in nearly all caregiving situations. Many people feel guilt, and even shame, because their caregiving is not stress-free. If the caregiver dearly loves the care receiver, then feeling stress from caring for him or her eats at the carer's conscience. Sometimes, the caregiver feels trapped in the guilt and love cycle. They don't want to give up the caregiver role, but they can no longer sustain the pace. There are options, though not all are easy.

Human beings, especially loving human beings, seem to have a penchant for "beating themselves up" over imperfections. This isn't the place to go into all the various psychological issues that make us feel we need to do everything perfectly, but the most common and obvious issues generally stem from trying to please our parents by being very, very good, and not feeling as if we measure up.

Just because we are all grown up, doesn't mean we are, well all grown up. A part of us still wants to please. Couple this need to please our parents, spouse or other care receiver by being the perfect caregiver with the other demands of life - often growing children or dependent grandchildren, an outside job, keeping up a home, paying bills and running errands - and stress begins to rule our lives.

If only this life allowed us to do one job at a time and do it well! However, few caregivers live that kind of life. Even if a rare person does have the "luxury" of focusing solely on the care receiver, there would still be stress. Very few people can care for another day and night without any relief, especially if the care receiver cannot be left alone. This need to be on call at all times can lead stress.

This stress crosses boundaries and extends into caring for a disabled child or any other intensive caregiving. A caregiver who is feels he or she is all alone, is a caregiver that is stressed, and one who is a great danger of having a health breakdown.

How do caregivers relieve stress?

Stress relief is unique to individuals, but nearly all of us require a certain amount of socialization. Socialization can mean any number of things. If the care receiver can be left alone for even short periods of time, the carer can get out into the world for a bit, and that can work wonders. However, if even that little break has no "me time," stress and the burned out feeling will not go away. In fact, it may worsen if all that we do while we're out is run necessary errands, since we are still in work mode. I know of one home caregiver who dresses up in fun clothes and includes an inexpensive but fun stop to pick up a favorite treat just for herself. Yes, she's running errands, and is likely including errands for the care receiver, but these brief "me time" moments help her stay the course.

Being Heard Is Important

Long phone chats with other caregivers who can support you and share their feelings of imperfection, stress and not doing enough (take it from me - there is never a feeling of "enough") can be life enhancing. Most of us need to be heard, in some form, by people who understand.

During my heaviest caregiving years, I cared for five elders in three different settings, plus two children, one with chronic health problems. Stress? No paying job I've ever had - and likely will ever have - could equal the stress I was under. Yet many looked at me and thought (some said), "What's the big deal?"

Well, let me see. Having the welfare of five elders and two children on one's mind day and night, tending to the needs of all of them, making hospital runs and rescue runs to their homes, keeping up the shopping and doctor appointments for all of these people and giving them quality time is not a "big deal?" Well, not until you've done it!

At the time, a couple of my elders were in an excellent nursing home. I got to know other families during my time spent at the home. There were times when we family members would just embrace in the parking lot of the home - not having time to talk, but sharing our feelings with a strong hug. That was huge.

Talking it out, however, is even bigger. So, finding online support and articles, joining online conversations, attending support groups (if taking that time doesn't stress you more), and even getting counseling for yourself, can help get you through these times. Talking about stress and the guilt that can come from feeling like we are trapped and can't do it all is freeing. Putting into words how we really feel - without shame or guilt - can substantially lower stress levels.

Getting Help

However, you may be at a place in your journey where outside help is necessary for you, and your care receiver. Often, if two people are isolated too much, not only does the caregiver feel stress, but the care receiver does as well. Many care receivers need more socialization.

That socialization can come from the outside as when friends and faith community people visit. It can also come from paid in-home health. My uncle had a rotation of three women who cared for him during some of each day. They were from an excellent agency that was very good about what is now called "consistent assignment," a very important part of quality care. Consistent assignment means that the same caregiver, or rotation of caregivers, attends the care receiver, which generally gives the care receiver a sense of security. Many care receivers look forward to their time with the caregiver who comes in. My uncle did. They provided socialization as much as practical help.

Adult day care is another option for socialization. I know many seniors who love their time at adult day care. Between activities, peer acquaintances and expert care, these people are generally happy campers.

Whether caregivers choose in-home care or adult day care for the care receiver, the time away from caregiving can help refresh them. Even if they choose this option because they want or need a paying job, these care options still can provide peace of mind and an opportunity to do something different.

When Staying at Home Is No Longer an Option

The time comes for many, if not most, caregivers where they need to look at options such as assisted living or a nursing home for their loved one. The caregiver may be at a breaking point and needs relief for his or her own health, or the care receiver may not be safe without more care. The time for this decision will be different for each case (and many don't get this far).

Enlisting the help of assisted living or a nursing home does not mean you failed caregiving class. You are just getting help. You remain part of a team. A good facility will help ease your stress. A bad one can increase it. So, if at all possible, take time and choose carefully. Facilities can vary wildly, and you want the best available in your area.

Be very careful you don't let guilt hold you in stress mode. It happens often. Repeat after me: "I am still a caregiver. I am just getting help. I am still a caregiver. I am just getting help."

Your own health is vital to yourself and your loved ones. If your stress is not relieved by sharing with other caregivers and getting support, then outside help of some kind is most likely necessary. You are one human being trying to take on the world of caregiving - one of the most stressful if frequently enjoyable and often rewarding jobs possible. Being human means reaching out. Yes, you can do it. Get help if stress is ruling your life.