Managing the stress of caregiving

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By Monica Rheuling

Stress. It’s amazing what a small, six-letter word can do to a person’s physical, mental and emotional health. We have all felt stress at different times, and know the havoc it can cause, from the headaches to the ulcers to the fits of uncontrollable crying.

For many of us, and especially for the caregivers of a loved one with a chronic illness such as Alzheimer’s disease, negative stress often is the leader of other undesirable feelings. Stress, along with guilt, despair and anxiety quickly can eat away at a family caregiver’s entire being.

It’s important for us to recognize the power of negative stress and to understand how it can have an impact on us as caregivers. It also is important to recognize stress can be controlled with help from others. Take a few minutes to take this Caregiver Stress Check published by the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org) to find out about your own stress signals.

Do you regularly …

  • Feel like you have to do it all yourself, and that you should be doing more?
  • Withdraw from family, friends and activities you used to enjoy?
  • Worry the person you care for is safe?
  • Feel anxious about money and health care decisions?
  • Deny the impact of the disease and its effects on your family?
  • Feel grief or sadness that your relationship with the person isn’t what it used to be?
  • Get frustrated and angry when the person with dementia continually repeats things and doesn’t seem to listen?
  • Have health problems that are taking a toll on you mentally and physically due to your caregiving responsibilities?

If you have answered yes to any of these questions and feel like these stress indicators are experienced on a regular basis, your overall well being is being jeopardized and a physician should be consulted. Your physician will help you to manage the physical and mental changes often brought on by stress and may suggest the following:

  • Understand the diagnosis of your loved one as early as possible. Once you know what you are dealing with, you’ll be better able to manage the present and plan for the future.
  • Educate yourself about caregiving. Different skills and capabilities will be needed in this demanding role.
  • Hold a family conference. Everyone who will be involved in caregiving and planning for the future should be involved.
  • Know what resources are available. Adult day care, in-home assistance, home health, and home delivered meals are just some of the community services that can help.
  • Assess your support system. Join a caregiver support group. Talk about what is going on in your home with someone you trust.
  • Get help with providing care. Trying to do everything yourself will leave you exhausted. If others do not offer assistance, do not be afraid to ask them for help with specific caregiving duties.
  • Take care of yourself. Caregivers frequently devote themselves totally to those they care for, and in the process, neglect their own needs.
  • Be realistic. Until cures are found for Alzheimer’s disease and other incurable conditions, downward progressions are inevitable. The care you provide to your loved one does make a difference. Give yourself permission to grieve for loses you experience.

As negative as the word “stress” sounds, we must recognize having some stress in one’s life is a positive generator. Positive stress often gives a person the extra drive to accomplish challenging tasks.

Positive stress also can help someone feel as if they have climbed the highest mountain and made it all the way to the top without falling down. The positives can only present themselves once supports and resources have been put in place. Without the extra support, the negative stressors will only become more apparent.

Through all of the stressful acts of caregiving and daily living, it is most important to give yourself credit, not guilt. Taking on a positive attitude toward stressful events can help us to realize we are only human and doing the best we possibly can under the circumstances.

Contact Senior Life columnist Monica Ruehling at mruehling@thenewsenterprise.com.