Avoid caregiver burnout

My siblings and I took turns caring for our mother when she underwent cancer treatment. A year earlier, we did the same thing when our father went through heart surgery. Next door to me, a daughter came home from New York City to help her mother care for her dying father. Two doors down, the daughter of an elderly couple helped care for her parents. They recently died within three weeks of one another. Another friend just lost both his parents within a few months of one another, and his father-in-law is also ill. He has faced enormous care giving demands.

This litany of family stories ripples out. Is this something besides a string of coincidences and a run of very bad luck?

It is simply life, taking its course. And for baby boomers and their elderly parents, it is a huge demographic certainty. A CARP report on Home Care in Canada includes a graph charting the growth of the senior population, age 65 and over. The line travels up in a steep angle.

Growing senior population

According to the 2006 Census, the number of Canadians aged 65 and over increased by more than 11 per cent, topping the 4 million mark for the first time. This has profound implications for the rest of the population, especially the group in the middle years who face caring or arranging care for aging relatives and friends.

The stress is considerable, according to a recent report called A Guide to end-of-life care for seniors. According to the guide, “29 per cent of caregivers of persons with long-term health problems stated that caregiving had altered their sleep patterns and 21 per cent claimed their health had been altered.”

Gerry Smith is a counselling specialist with the EAP firm, Warren Shepell. He says that caregivers experience a confluence of physical exhaustion, emotional overload and intellectual frustration-the latter because they can’t do much about the progress of aging or serious illness. His company provides the employee assistance programs for many Canadian companies.

“We run a program called Family Matters. We have more and more requests coming in from people who are in that supportive position of being caregivers. I know a number of my colleagues dealing with elderly parents, some of who have Alzheimer’s, and who do need to give care and attention to their parents and find it very frustrating that work still has to be done. You still have to earn your living. You still have to make your own way in life,’ he says.

Emotional drain hardest?
Smith says in his experience, it’s the emotional drain which is hardest on caregivers.

“It’s seeing their loved one deteriorate and helplessness of knowing there’s very little they can do. It’s sometimes as if they start grieving the loss before it actually happens, and that affects their entire demeanor. And it’s also very hard not to transmit your own feelings of loss to the person who’s sick or ailing, because they need a sense of hope as well,’ he says. The Guide to end-of-life care for seniors is sponsored by Health Canada and medical departments in both the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa. It contains these practical pointers on recognizing the signs of caregiver burnout and preventing it:

Recognizing signs of Caregiver Burnout:
• Denial about the disease and its effects on the person: ‘I know Mom will get better’
• Anger at the affected person: ‘If he asks me that question once more, I’ll scream.’
• Withdrawing socially, losing touch with friends and favourite activities.
• Anxiety about facing another day and what the future holds.
• Depression, feeling sad and hopeless much of the time.
• Exhaustion such that completing daily tasks seems barely possible.
• Sleeplessness with middle-of-the night waking or stressful dreams.
• Emotional reactions such as often being irritable, crying at minor upsets.
• Lack of concentration and finding it difficult to complete complex tasks.
• Health problems, including weight gain or loss, chronic headaches or backaches.

Ways to help prevent Caregiver Burnout:
• Plan early to find ways to support yourself to stay healthy through diet, exercise, vitamins and supplements, yoga, meditation, time for yourself.
• Take time off to pursue some interest or hobby.
• Take advantage of offers for help from family, friends and community agencies.
• Be patient with yourself, recognizing that some days are going to be more difficult than others, but maybe tomorrow will be better.
• Try to think of at least one good thing that happened today.
• Have at least one person you can confide in who can give you support and to whom you can provide support as well in a mutual relationship.
• Spirituality can provide support.
• Maintain contact with others in a similar situation through support groups.
• Get information about resources available through the Alzheimer Society, the Canadian Cancer Society or other community resources and take advantage of what is out there.
• Realize there may well be a time that you will be unable to continue to care for your loved one at home and you need not feel guilty about this.
• Try to get enough rest.

The reason for focusing on caregiver health and wellbeing is clear, according to the guide:

“A caregiver who does not take care of him/herself is not much good to his/her loved one. Do things that bring you joy and keep you going. You need to balance everything so that you can find the equilibrium that gives you energy for things you’d like to do as well as the things you have to do.”

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