Managing the Stress Often Associated with Family Caregiving

A new study from Johns Hopkins found that caregivers actually live longer. They are 18 percent more likely to do so. However, this newfound longevity depends on their ability to manage the stress that often comes with caregiving. Reaching out for love and support is an invaluable way of helping them manage their stress.

However, sometimes caregivers become their own worst enemies by building unnecessary barriers to receiving the love and support that is available to them. This article offers advice for adult family caregivers who are taking care of their aging or sick elderly parents, their own children, spouse, or other family members, lovers, and friends. These are some tried and true guidelines that can help you get the best and avoid the worst.


Do be clear about what you need and want

“When you know what you truly need, it is easy to ask for it,” insists Rabbi Phyllis Berman, a caregiver for her husband, who was battling throat cancer. He couldn’t swallow his food and needed to use a feeding tube to get his nourishment. She was panicked. She didn’t know how to use the equipment that had been delivered, which was different from what they had shown her in the hospital. She realized that what she needed was indeed simple: Someone to show her how to use it. That person, who happened to be an off-duty nurse, stepped forward that evening at an informal gathering of friends and offered to go home with her and show her how to do the feeding. She went from feeling overwhelmed to being empowered. And her husband got the nourishment he needed to sustain his life. The lesson: Be very specific about what you need.

Do use caresites to voice your preferences

Letting people know is very easy these days. You can use one of the websites, coined by me as “caresites”, which are free, easy-to-create websites that let people know exactly what is going on and what you need.

These sites allow you to tell people the means you would like them to use to communicate with you, such as via the caresite, by texting or by email, and what expectations they should have of your response, such as whether you intend to answer voice mail, emails or texts. Additionally, you can post the kinds of attitudes and actions you and your loved one would welcome.

Do share your limits and boundaries

Too many caregivers are reluctant to reach out for love and support because they are afraid their family will lose their privacy. Fortunately, setting your privacy settings is very easy to do, especially if use a caresite. These sites allow you to decide who will be told what is going on and what the prognosis may be. You can choose whether it will be a small intimate circle of family and friends or a wider circle, such as your congregation, community or the wider world.

Do forgive people in advance

Forgive people for their clumsiness, awkwardness, unconsciousness and stupidity. Forgiveness towards your friends, family, members of your larger community and healthcare providers will help conserve your energy and sustain your spirit. Harboring resentments can harm your immune system. Forgiveness will strengthen it.

While you are at it, forgive your loved one for taking you for granted, being moody or ungrateful. And maybe most importantly, forgive yourself for being a marvelous human being–with foibles, learned responses to stressors and mood swings.


Do not attempt to manage everything on your own

Toughing it out alone can mean social isolation, which is a factor often associated with negative health outcomes. Remember that it can be very helpful to reach out for help–not only for you as the caregiver, but also for your loved one and other members of your household.

Do not forget to value and respect your own needs

Most of us have a difficult time staving off people who don’t know how to approach us in an appropriate way. We believe that we have to take help and support on any terms people offer it. We let people wear us down with unwanted information and advice.

Too often, rather than focusing on our own needs and priorities, we focus on not hurting other people’s feelings. However, at this point in time, your focus and priority needs to be on your own and your loved one’s well-being. And to cultivate an attitude that it is not only okay to have this focus, but it is imperative to do so.

Do not believe that only you can get everything done correctly

This is the attitude that many caregivers have and one that puts them at great risk for becoming exhausted, depleted, impaired and, ultimately, burned out. While it is clearly understandable, it is not sustainable. In its extreme, these caregivers are in a “martyr trance.”

And while martyrs are admired for many exemplary qualities, keeping their jobs is not necessarily one of them. If, as the sole caregiver, you burn yourself out, you will be abandoning your loved one–something you are most likely determined never to do. To avoid this from happening, you may need help from loving friends and relatives in finding ways to lighten your load and share the caring.

Do not assume you won’t get burned out later

There’s a classic demonstration that consists of a frog in a pot of water that is slowly being brought to a boil. The frog merrily goes about his business of swimming and diving around the pot, all the while oblivious to the increasingly perilous situation until it is too late.

Caregivers who don’t take care of themselves may be putting themselves in a similar position. Learning to reach out and finding ways to do this will help sustain you as you take care of your loved one. And if warm water sounds attractive to you, go to your nearest spa.