More and more, as our population ages, many of us are taking care of aging spouses or parents. According to the Mayo Clinic, 33% of adults provide such care. Most caregivers feel an obligation to do so out of love.
However, caregivers often find that providing that care is emotionally and physically, and often financially, draining. It is essential that caregivers know their limits. The danger is that the everyday stresses and challenges of providing such care often lead caregivers to forget about themselves, which can lead to depression, social isolation, financial difficulties, stress, fatigue, loss of interest in activities, frequent pain or headaches, and other effects.
When we get on an airplane before we take off the flight attendants always instruct passengers that, if the oxygen masks drop down, be sure to place them on you before you help others. Why? If you pass out from lack of oxygen, you cannot help anyone else, so by taking care of yourself you are in a position to care for others. This is not selfishness – it is a necessity.
When “Mary” first came to see us, her husband of over 40 years had advanced Alzheimer’s and other physical conditions, and qualified for skilled nursing level care. Caring for him was a 24-hour job – he would wander off at all hours of the day and night, and other behaviors and
Mary needed to dispense his medications throughout the day and evening. We immediately sensed that Mary was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but this was her husband, her love, to whom she had pledged herself in sickness and in health. She could not imagine abandoning her “obligation” to him by placing him in a nursing home, and, sadly, they did not qualify for Medicaid Waiver for in-home care.
We worked hard to make her understand that caring for her husband was killing her. As we talked, it became ever clearer that she could not keep up her current pace. I asked Mary how caring for her husband was affecting her; she admitted that she was under constant stress, was depressed, didn’t have any social life, and was generally wearing down. I then asked her what would happen if she were to wear down so much that she died from overwork while caring for her husband. She was startled – she hadn’t considered that. The answer was, there would be no alternative – he would have to go to a nursing home.
It took a couple of meetings with her, but she finally came to realize that in the long run, she was not doing her husband any favors by keeping him at home; her best course of action would be to find a great nursing home for him, and visit him frequently and get stronger physically and emotionally herself so she could continue to play an important role in her husband’s life for a long time to come.
If you are going to care for a loved one in the twilight of his/her life, then there are things which you should do to maintain your physical and mental health, such as:
- Seek and accept help from family and support groups, including online.
- Keep connected with family, friends, even clergy.
- Find out from your loved one’s medical staff, or others, what resources are available to you and your loved one.
- Give yourself permission to spend “me time” to rejuvenate your physical and mental conditions – then do it! Even a short time for yourself each day can make a huge difference.
- Maintain good, healthy habits.
- Exercise – it improves your mood and reduces stress.
You should consider all of your options, but always consider your needs as well as your loved one’s. Remember, to be an effective resource for your loved one, you need to put the oxygen mask on first before you can help others!