By Wendy Nathan, BSc, CMC
As we enter our third year of the COVID pandemic, it’s important to pause for a moment and acknowledge how it has stretched us all emotionally, physically, mentally and financially. Daily life is challenging enough. Toss in an ever-evolving pandemic and the landscape becomes more complex.
Family caregivers, you have been hit exceptionally hard. I want to acknowledge that too. I also want to say, “I see you. I celebrate you. I thank you!”
For seven years, I’ve facilitated a family caregiver support group for the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter. In my work as a care manager for Aging Wisdom, as well as through facilitation of this support group, I often hear and observe the experiences, emotions, and concerns that are common to dementia family caregivers:
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Struggles with problem solving
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Financial worries
Even under the best circumstances, being responsible for the needs of another can be all-consuming. The pandemic has made caregiving more challenging and stressful.
I’ve watched family care partners go above and beyond. However, as you’re actively caring for a loved one, you don’t always recognize it may be affecting your own health and well-being.
Are you near or at caregiver burnout? Is your flame about to fizzle?
Too much stress can be harmful
Stress can be positive (think job promotion or a new addition to the family) or negative, like when you face challenges without relief or relaxation between those challenges. As a result, you become overworked and stress-related tension grows.
Burnout is “a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress,” according to Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician scientist who studies burnout at the Mayo Clinic. When the stress persists, it can (and usually does) become harmful.
Bad stress, called distress, can express itself through physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, insomnia, chest pains, headaches, skin conditions and stomach upset. Stress can also play a part in depression and anxiety. It may also contribute to making certain symptoms and diseases worse, such as asthma, arthritis and heart disease. Distress can also cause harm when you use alcohol, tobacco, food or drugs to manage the stress.
Recognizing the warning signs of caregiver burnout is essential. So is learning and practicing strategies to manage this stress to support your health and well-being. This is called self-care.
Take the Caregiver Stress Test©
Feeling overwhelmed and unable to take another step forward? You may be experiencing burnout. Take this quiz to find out if your flame is about to fizzle.
|Caregiver Stress Test©||TRUE, this describes my situation most of the time.||FALSE, this isn’t the case in my situation.|
|1. I feel emotionally drained by my caregiving duties.|
|2. I’ve developed a negative attitude.|
|3. I feel stressed out more often than not.|
|4. I have medical problems as a result of caregiving.|
|5. I feel more depressed and/or anxious than before I became a caregiver.|
|6. I’m not successful as a caregiver.|
|7. I have trouble sleeping at night.|
|8. I feel all alone. No one helps me.|
|9. I have trouble making time for myself and taking a break.|
|10. I feel trapped in my caregiver role.|
|11. I feel hopeless and as if there is no help for my situation.|
|12. I’ve become angry and frustrated, and sometimes, I take my anger and frustration out on the person I care for.|
The more items you answered TRUE, the higher the likelihood you are experiencing burnout! Even if you responded TRUE to one question, you would benefit from additional support.
Practical tips for self-care and stress management
It’s imperative to practice self-care when caregiving. Stress management techniques can be simple and effective. Acquaint yourself with resources and services to help manage daily tasks and decisions — I’ve included some links below.
Adopt just one of these stress-reducing tips and I promise you’ll feel better:
- ACKNOWLEDGE THE PROBLEM. What is not working, what is difficult, and how are your feelings and health suffering?
- BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF. Examine what can and can’t be changed with the situation. Where are you comfortable giving up some of your caregiving duties to others? Are there things you can stop doing with no negative consequences?
- GET MOVING. Physical activity can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Even 10 minutes of exercise a day can help. Take a walk, garden, dance or jog in place. Get outdoors, breathe fresh air, savor sunshine, chase a grandchild around the neighborhood park or take your dog for a vigorous walk!
- USE RELAXATION TECHNIQUES. They really work! There are several simple techniques that can help relieve stress. Find what works best for you: visualization, meditation, breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation.
- ASK FOR AND GET HELP. Doing everything by yourself will leave you exhausted. Seek the support of family, friends, and other caregivers. Contact the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 1.800.272.3900 for support and reliable information. Work with a professional, such as a care consultant or care manager, to assist with care planning and guidance. Join a support group to learn and benefit from the wisdom and support of others who are on a similar journey.
- MAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF. As a caregiver, it’s hard to find time for yourself, but staying connected to friends, family, and activities that you love is important. Look for caregiver respite programs, companionship care, and other supports that free you to carve out time for yourself and to re-energize.
- BECOME AN EDUCATED CAREGIVER. Take advantage of online courses, informational websites, as well as resources (such as your local library). The Chapter offers a robust range of educational opportunities each month. Check them out!
- TAKE CARE OF YOU! Staying healthy will help you be a better caregiver. Visit your doctor and dentist regularly. Watch your diet, exercise, hydrate and get plenty of rest.
You are not alone
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and alone. Sometimes you need additional support. Here are some organizations in our area that are ready to offer help, resources and support:
- Alzheimer’s Association, Washington State – 24/7 Helpline: 1.800.272.3900
- Washington State Dementia Action Collaborative – Established in 2016, the Dementia Action Collaborative (DAC) is a group of public-private partners committed to preparing Washington state for the growth of the population living with dementia.
- Washington Association of Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) – each AAA in the State of Washington has an Information and Assistance (I&A) or Information and Referral (I&R) office to assist you in connecting with local resources.
- Aging Life Care Association, find an Aging Life Care Professional (we are also known as geriatric care managers) near you who can assist with care planning, care management and support.
Are you a dementia family caregiver?
Register for the Alzheimer’s Association Journey Conference for dementia family caregivers on Saturday, March 5, 2022. This year’s conference will be held online and it’s always free. I’ll be providing the keynote address, where we’ll dive more deeply into the topic of caregiver burnout. Click here for more information or to register!
Wendy Nathan, BSc, CMC is a Certified Care Manager with Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care practice with offices in Seattle and Bellevue. Wendy also facilitates a support group for the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter. She loves to cook, to read and spend time with her two kids and husband, especially outdoors. You can always find her at her neighborhood farmers market.