Whether you are a new family caregiver or have been taking care of your family member with Parkinson’s disease for a long time, it is easy to get lost in the day-to-day challenges. Most caregivers feel stress at some point, while many feel stress all the time. Some stress is natural; it is the body’s reaction to a real or perceived threat. When the threat is over, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. However, when it comes to caregiving the stress is almost constant and your body never has a chance to recover. That is why it is important to deal with it as it is happening. But how?
“Take care of yourself” is the most common advice you will get from professionals and friends. And it’s good advice. It’s just hard to get a good night’s sleep, eat healthy foods, exercise, and go to the doctor regularly when caregiving seems to take every minute of every day.
As a former caregiver, I’ve been given all kinds of advice. But I’ve learned that there is no one answer that works for every caregiver. What I have found valuable, in terms of advice, is to try focusing on the one area that makes you feel most at risk. For example, if you have a chronic health problem, seeing a doctor regularly and following his or her recommendations is the most important step you can take. If you are generally healthy, but feeling seriously depressed or anxious, consult a doctor or therapist. Depression is treatable, but only if you acknowledge that your mood is affecting your life and probably your caregiving as well.
In addition to focusing on taking care of your most immediate needs, there are many other steps you can take as a caregiver to care for yourself. In fact, I believe the most important step is the very first one you take, whatever it is. After you take the first step the second step will be easier. The following are a few self-care tips to help you in your daily life as a caregiver:
- Take stock of your strengths and acknowledge your limits. Recognizing what you are doing well can help you deal with the aspects of caregiving you find most troubling.
- Analyze the sources of your stress. Is it the deteriorating health of your family member, financial issues, isolation, family conflict, competing family or work responsibilities, or lack of time for yourself? Just dealing with health care and insurance bureaucracies can be a major source of stress. What exactly is the problem?
- Take a problem-solving approach to each source of stress. What can be done to ease that particular strain?
- Enlist others in the solution. Depending on the problem, seek the support of another family member, a trusted friend, social worker, physician, nurse, therapist, home care aide, financial adviser, lawyer, or religious leader. Some solutions will be temporary or incomplete; accept that and move forward.
- Follow a diet and exercise program that is realistic and satisfying.
- Learn some breathing techniques to use when you feel tired or overwhelmed. “Take a deep breath” is always good advice for a reason; it gets oxygen to your brain.
- Try to find an outlet for your own interests, creativity, and individuality. You had a life before caregiving; what were the things you liked to do? Try to find a way to do them again, even in a limited way. What were the things you always wanted to do? Try to find a way to start. There will be a life after caregiving, and these activities will help you then as well as now.
- Develop your spiritual side, whether that is through prayer, meditation, nature, art, literature, music or whatever takes your thoughts to a different plane.
I know how hard it is to put such plans into action. But I also know from experience that every small step makes a difference.
Carol Levine is director of the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund in New York City and the Next Step in Care campaign. She directs the Fund’s Next Step in Care campaign, which has created a website – www.nextstepincare.org – with guides for family caregivers to help them through transitions in care settings – hospital to home, for example. One of the newest guides, “The First Step in Care: Becoming a Family Caregiver,” offers practical advice to both new and experienced caregivers about adjusting to the role and responsibilities.