Caregiver Respite

September 7, 2011

by Ellen Woodward Potts
Co-author, A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver

One of the largest stresses of caregiving, whether for someone with dementia or some other type of chronic illness, is the lack of time the caregiver has to herself.  There are all kinds of reasons for this.

First and foremost, there is the sheer enormity of the task.  The more needy your loved one is, the more of your time caregiving takes.  Often, a loved one’s condition declines as time goes on, so what started as a part-time endeavor becomes something that consumes all your time.

Second, there is the caregiver “trap” that most people fall into:  “No one can take care of him better than I can.”  I call it a “trap,” but often it’s true.  No one will dedicate as much time, love, energy, and understanding to your loved one as you will.  That being said, others can take care of your loved one for several hours or even days at a time, with reasonable skill, kindness, dignity and respect.  You need a break, so that you can continue as a caregiver.

Third, there is the fact that as caregiving consumes more of your time, you have less time maintain friendships.  Also, friends and family don’t visit as often.  This is especially true if your loved one has dementia and may say or do things that make others uncomfortable.  In this situation, there are fewer calls and invitations from family and friends, so you have less opportunities to go out socially.

These three things, among others, make for a caregiver completely consumed by the task at hand, which is not healthy for the caregiver or her loved one.  With any type of chronic illness, caregiving is a marathon, not a sprint.  If you do not take time for yourself, you will not finish the race.  Often, family and friends will ask what they can do to help, but the caregiver does not take advantage of the offer.  Instead, have a short list of ways family and friends can help you — sitting with your loved one while you go out for a few hours or spending the night at your house while you get a good night’s sleep once a week.  If the person is not suited to caregiving, ask them to do something else — go to the grocery for you, clean your house, give you money toward a sitter — anything to help you get through this enormous task of caregiving that often lasts for years.

If you are a married caregiver who is not caring for a spouse, invest time in your marriage.  Often, caregiving consumes so much of the time and energy of the caregiver that the marriage falls apart.  Don’t become part of this statistic.  Talk about your role as a caregiver with your spouse and come to a mutual understanding, so that caregiving does not destroy your marriage.

Of course, when you set boundaries to keep caregiving from over-taking every bit of your life, expect to feel guilty for taking time for yourself.  This may be in your own mind, or your loved one may deliberately attempt to make you feel guilty (or some combination of the two).  The most important skill to develop as a caregiver is the ability to forgive yourself.  In most cases, the standards you set for yourself are much higher than any reasonable person would set for you.  Pace yourself, take time for yourself, invest in your marriage and / or other relationships, so that you can stay healthy.  Ultimately, you will be a much better caregiver for it.

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