Would you ever apply for a job for which you had no training or skill set? A job with no salary, no insurance plan, no paid time off and no option of retiring? The job ad might look something like this:
Caregiver Duties, Qualifications and Responsibilities:
• Ability to care for the client's social, emotional, physical and mental health
• Proficient handling and managing of medications
• Ability to multitask, be flexible and stay organized
• Ability to remain calm and handle any emergency that may arise
• Exceptionally patient, good at listening and responsive to others' needs
• Proficient in all domestic chores such as preparing meals, cleaning and running errands
• Quick learner of complex medical diagnoses
Caregiver Salary Expectations:
Caregiver Education and Training Requirements:
No minimum education or training requirement necessary. On the job training will be provided.
Caregiver Experience Requirements:
No previous experience needed.
This is the reality of approximately 40.4 million unpaid caregivers in the United States. Would you apply for this job?
Most people come into their caregiving role suddenly and unexpectedly, usually as a result of a medical emergency or an accident. I came into my caregiving role gradually. It crept up on me. After my mom passed away, my 82-year-old dad came to live with us. At that time, he was fit and healthy and had no noticeable cognitive decline. Over the years, his abilities slowly changed. I noticed he was having a more difficult time balancing his checkbook and understanding his finances. He was having difficulty remembering if or when he took his pills, and at times he was struggling to find his words. When he received the diagnosis of MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment), I knew what my path would be, but it still hadn’t sunk in. As the months and years wore on and his cognitive and physical abilities declined, it became more and more apparent that I was a bona-fide, full-fledged working caregiver. I had somehow wound up with a job I was not prepared for, nor did I want.
In that time, I found some very basic strategies helped keep me going… most days:
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings
A caregiver can be their own worst enemy. Negative thoughts and overwhelming emotions can undermine one’s best intentions. Anxiety, sadness, doubt, anger, guilt and exhaustion can come on fast and furious.
It is important to understand that these feelings – all of them – are a natural part of the caregiver situation and a natural part of being human. But it is essential for your mental health that you find a counterbalance to these negative thoughts and emotions, like meditation, joining a support group, talking with a professional counselor or meeting up with a friend. Talking out your feelings can help you to gain perspective of your situation and it just might make you feel better.
2. Allow Friends and Family to Help
Don’t be reluctant to ask for help. It might not be easy, but say yes when someone offers. Asking for help does not mean that you’re incapable of handling your caregiving situation. It just means that you are one person trying your best to care for another. You will be pleasantly surprised by the willingness of others to pitch in. Many times, friends and family members want to help, but don’t know how. Make it easy for them. Keep a running list of tasks and errands that need to be done.
Know that there will come a time when you will be able to repay friends and family for their kindness.
3. Understand Your Needs and Options
Figuring out which care options best fit your loved one’s needs can be tricky. You need to have an open and honest conversation with your loved one, while they are still able, about what their thoughts and wishes are for the future (including end-of-life care). And you need to take a hard look at yourself and your network to see what can realistically be done to coordinate and provide the necessary care. Ask yourself the following questions:
a. What does my loved one need in order to live as independently and safely as possible? Does my loved one need help with grocery shopping, meal preparation and/or light housekeeping? Do they need help getting to and from doctor appointments? If they are lonely, would a companion or friendship call help? Do they need continuous supervision throughout the day and/or night?
b. How much money is available to pay for outside services? Will insurance cover any of the services? Is your loved one eligible for entitlement programs or the Medicare Savings Program?
c. What days and times do I need help? Can my job accommodate a flexible work arrangement?
d. What can I realistically do to provide the needed care while still having time for my family and myself?
4. Take Care of Yourself and Stay Healthy
You’ve heard this before, but I’ll say it again – you can’t take care of someone else if you don’t take care of yourself first. Who would step into your caregiving shoes if something happened to you?
It’s the domino effect. The combination of prolonged stress, the physical and emotional demands of caregiving and our own biological vulnerabilities put caregivers at a significant high risk for health problems and early death. Caregivers tend to be sleep deprived, have poor eating habits, find excuses not to exercise, continue to work when ill, postpone medical appointments and treatments and are at a higher rate for depression and substance abuse. Caregivers are also at an increased risk of chronic illnesses such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
During my caregiving years, I lost weight (not necessarily a good thing for me) and woke up most mornings feelings overwhelmed, a bit panicky and wanting to just go back to bed. But there were things I had to do – I had to get my dad set up for the day and get myself to work. For me, being active (either taking a long walk or joining in an exercise or yoga class at lunchtime) was a saving grace. It was a way for me to let go of my anxiety, reduce my stress and clear my mind. But that isn’t for everyone. You need to find what works best for you.
So how do you take care of your own health?
a. Know the signs of caregiver stress and explore ways to help you manage that stress:
Anxiety, depression, irritability
Feeling tired and run down
Overreacting to minor situations
Neglecting your own needs
Feeling hopeless and helpless
b. Set and define boundaries for what is acceptable to you, what you have time to do and how much you are willing to do.
c. Avoid teaching helplessness. It happens when you consistently do things or make decisions for other people instead of letting them do it themselves. Over time, people will come to believe that they are incapable of doing anything for themselves (always helping your father put on his sweater/jacket or always brushing your mother’s hair, for example). This seems helpful, but you might be teaching helplessness.
d. Practice self-care:
Attend to your own health needs
Get enough sleep
Eat a well-balanced diet
Take time to exercise
Make time for yourself and for your other relationships
Focus on the things you can control, rather than stressing over the things you can’t. We tend to spend too much time dwelling on things we can’t change, or things for which there is no clear answer. But at the end of the day, we’re no better off.
5. Seek Balance and Forgive Yourself
Caregiving can be thankless and lonely. Acknowledge your feelings and know that you have a right to ALL of them. Sometimes I would lie awake at night admonishing myself for my shortcomings. We have to be able to forgive ourselves and be patient, while reminding ourselves of the good work we are doing.
When I first realized where my path was leading me, I had a genuine sense of confidence and enthusiasm about my new caregiver role. “I CAN DO THIS!” But as the years wore on and more and more demands were placed on my time and energy, both my confidence and my enthusiasm began to falter. I had to keep reminding myself that what I was doing was the right thing. In the end, after my dad died, I knew that being his caregiver was one of the most rewarding times in my life. I would apply for the caregiver position again!