We are entering our third year of a pandemic that has stretched us emotionally, physically, mentally, and financially. Daily life is challenging enough but toss in an ever-evolving pandemic and the landscape has become more complex.
Caregiving and caregivers have been hit exceptionally hard. Whether you are a parent or grandparent helping your kids navigate distance learning, then in-person learning, while also balancing childcare with work obligations, or you’re supporting a loved one with additional care, or helping others manage all these responsibilities, we know it’s been tough.
For seven years, I’ve facilitated a family caregiver support group for young adults who have a parent living with younger-onset Alzheimer’s (YOA). YOA is diagnosed when symptoms occur before the age of 65. Some of the group participants are still in school, others newly married, and some are raising children while helping to care for a parent.
These young adults are frequently called upon to fill in the gaps of care, offer emotional support, and sometimes help financially. Even though the group is young, each participant has experiences and emotions that are common to all family caregivers, regardless of age:
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Struggles with problem solving
- Fatigue or tiredness
- Financial worries
Even under the best circumstances, being responsible for the needs of another can be all-consuming. The pandemic has made caregiving more complex and challenging.
Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic and the added stress it brings, family care partners are going above and beyond. Unfortunately, as they actively care for a loved one, they don’t always recognize when they are also experiencing caregiver burnout.
Are you burning out, too? Is your flame about to fizzle?
Too much stress can be harmful
Stress can be positive (think job promotion or a new addition to the family) or negative, like when you face challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. As a result, you become overworked and stress-related tension grows.
Bad stress, called distress, can express itself through physical symptoms such as high blood pressure, insomnia, chest pains, headaches, skin conditions, and stomach upset. Stress can also play a part in depression and anxiety. It may also contribute to making certain symptoms and diseases worse, such as asthma, arthritis, and heart disease. Distress can also cause harm when you abuse alcohol, tobacco, food, or drugs to manage the stress.
Burnout is “a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress,” according to one research scientist. Recognizing the warning signs of caregiver burnout is essential. So is learning and practicing strategies to manage this stress to support your health and well-being. This is called self-care.
Take the Caregiver Stress Test
Feeling overwhelmed and unable to take another step forward? You may be experiencing burnout. Take the Caregiver Stress Test above to find out if your flame is about to fizzle.
The more items you indicate as TRUE, the higher the likelihood you are experiencing burnout! Even if you responded TRUE to one question, you would benefit from additional support.
Practical tips for self-care and stress management
It’s imperative to practice self-care when caregiving. Stress management techniques can be simple and effective. Acquaint yourself with resources and services to help manage daily tasks and decisions. Adopt just one of the stress-reducing tips below, and we promise you’ll feel better:
- Get moving. Physical activity can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Even 10 minutes of exercise a day can help. Take a walk, garden, dance, jog in place. Get outdoors, breathe fresh air, seek sunshine, chase a grandchild around the neighborhood park, take your dog for a vigorous walk! Speaking of dogs, one of my favorite exercises is what I call “The Wet Dog.” Shake yourself like you are a wet dog. Move your body. Really shake it. Get silly. Do this for 10 seconds. You’ll be amazed at how energizing it can be.
- Use relaxation techniques. They really work! There are several simple techniques that can help relieve stress. Find what works best for you: visualization, meditation, breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation. One simple breathing technique is the “5 By 5 By 5”; Breathe in for five seconds. Hold that breath for five seconds. Slowly release your breath for five seconds. Repeat five times.
- Be honest with yourself. Where are you comfortable giving up some of your caregiving duties to others? Are these things you can stop doing with no negative consequences? It’s OK to say “No”.
- Ask for and get help. Caregiving is demanding. Doing everything by yourself will leave you exhausted. Seek the support of family, friends, and other caregivers. Work with a professional, such as a care manager or care consultant, to assist with care planning and guidance. Join a support group to lean and benefit from the wisdom and support of others who are on a similar journey.
- Make time for yourself. As a caregiver, it’s hard to find time for yourself, but staying connected to friends, family, and activities that you love is important. Look for caregiver respite programs, companionship care, and other supports that free you to carve out time for yourself and to re-energize.
- Become an educated caregiver. Take advantage of online courses, informational websites, and resources at your local library. If you are caring for someone with dementia, new caregiving skills may be necessary as the disease progresses. There are many local organizations that can connect you to programs to help you better understand and cope with changes that often accompany Alzheimer’s and other dementias. See the resource list below.
- Take care of you! Staying healthy will help you be a better caregiver. Visit your doctor and dentist regularly. Watch your diet and exercise, hydrate, and get plenty of rest.
You are not alone
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and confused about what to do. And sometimes you need additional support. Here are some organizations in our area that are ready to offer help, resources, and support:
- Community Living Connections—Seattle & King County: toll-free 1-844-348-5464
- Sound Generations: Family Caregiver Support Program 206-448-3110
- Alzheimer’s Association, Washington State: 24/7 Helpline 1-800-272-3900
- Aging Life Care Association: Find an Aging Life Care Professional like me near you who can assist with care planning, care management and support. We are also known as geriatric care managers.
Talk to someone about your feelings and experiences while caregiving. People who understand are a phone call away. The organizations above have experts who are compassionate, knowledgeable, and experienced, and can help you implement some stress reducers and find the support and connect you to the resources you need.
Contributor Wendy Nathan, BSc, CMC is a Certified Care Manager with Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care practice with offices in Seattle and Bellevue. Wendy also facilitates a support group for the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter.
Register for the Alzheimer’s Association Dementia Family Caregiver Journey Conference on Saturday, March 5, 2022. This conference is virtual and FREE. For details and to register, visit AlzWaBlog.org/2021/12/29/journey-2022.