Caregiver Stress: Straight Talk for New Caregivers
The Deer Caught in the Headlines Syndrome
The family member who inherits the caregiver job after an accident or unforeseen health crisis faces overwhelming pressure. Feeling like a deer caught in the headlines, unable to move is a common emotion. Too much medical information is coming at them, too much is being asked of them and too much is being focused on the care recipient while the caregiver is falling apart inside and silently screaming, "What about me?" In many cases, the care recipient is the very person the new caregiver used to go to for support and comfort and with that relationship out of kilter, coping with caregiver stress can seem insurmountable.
The God-Never-Gives-Us-More-Than-We-Can-Handle Myth
A lot of platitudes are thrown around when caregiver stress manifests itself and the new caregiver tries to reach out. Friends and co-workers trying to be sympathetic often say things like: "God never gives you more than you can handle" or "get a grip" or worst yet, "you're not the patient here." For a few people platitudes might work to help them screw up their courage but for others, they are freaking out inside and wanting to shout back: "I do have more than I can handle. I can't get a grip and I might not be the patient here but I still need help!" What caregivers, and those who care about them, often don't realize is that caregiver stress---in the early months---is rooted in the Five Stages of Grief. Mourning a past way of life and fearing an uncertain future takes its toll. It's like being shell shocked. They are just going through the motions of what is required of them.
Crawling Out From Between the Rock and the Hard Place
Anyone who is familiar with the Five Stages of Grief knows the first stage is denial followed by anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Most caregivers move through the denial stage fairly quickly. But the anger stage is a different ball of wax, bringing on a lot of caregiver stress. They are angry at everyone: God, their care recipient, themselves, the medical community and/or people who they perceive as going about their own lives without acknowledging that the caregiver can't do that. They are floundering at getting organizing and unable to see that the solutions to their problems aren't going to find them; they have to go looking for way to reduce their caregiver stress. To dig out from between that rock and a hard place the caregiver needs to acknowledge where they are in the Five Stages of Grief and to seek professional counseling or peer support in the caregiver community if they have been stuck in one stage too long. Until new caregivers get to the acceptance stage, they will not be able to put the 'why me' mindset aside and start rebuilding their lives.
Staying Power for the Long Haul
Once a new caregiver is at the acceptance stage it's easier to put into practice the things they've read or heard about dealing with caregiver stress i.e. finding outside help. They will call their local 2-1-1 telephone referral system to learn what resources are available in their county such as adult day care, caregiver respite, home health care, social services, transportation services, Elder Care, peer support groups, and organizations like the Easter Seals, Lyon's Clubs and Red Cross that in many communities offer limited help. They will weigh up the options of downsizing, nursing homes, assisted living or hired caregivers. They will start believing that they do, indeed, have a right and a responsibility to look after their own mental and physical health as well as that of their care recipient. They will read the Caregiver's Bill of Rights and use it as a mantra should they be dealing with guilt trips or manipulation. They will find a family counselor should they need help dealing with extended family.
To hang in there for the long haul, and reduce caregiver stress, a person needs to form a plan and work the plan and that plan must include saying goodbye to their old life. Being a family caregiver can be a rewarding experience but it doesn't come without sacrifices. The biggest challenge a caregiver faces is---as the Serenity Prayer says---finding the courage to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that can be changed and the wisdom to tell the
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