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Ask a Therapist: Column #4 On Caregiving

Q: I am finding it so hard to take care of my ailing loved one and I feel so guilty for not having a better attitude about it.  Why am I so exhausted and frustrated? 

A: You are not alone. It is common for caregivers to have personal difficulty with maintaining the care of a loved one.  Whether you are caring for an aging parent, a sick child, or someone with chronic illness, caregiver stress and fatigue are real challenges and require understanding and compassion. Caregivers are often labeled the “silent sufferers” because they don’t feel entitled to speak about how much this role impacts their own well-being.  Unfortunately, this leaves many depleted and in need of care themselves and less able to help their loved ones in a way that feels congruent for them.

Many caregivers do not feel that they have the right to complain or report difficulties because it is their loved one that is actually experiencing “real” duress.  This is an example of a common cognitive distortion known as dichotomous thinking.  Sometimes called black-and-white thinking, dichotomous thinking is a way of categorizing things as “either/or” and not “both/and”  In this caregiving example, it seems that either the caregiver or her loved one is entitled to be struggling; however, a more realistic assessment of the situation is that both are suffering in their own ways.  Caregiving can be incredibly taxing – physically, emotionally, psychologically – and acknowledging that reality does not have to be at odds with also being honest about a loved one’s pain.

Here are a few simple ACTION steps that you can take to care for the caregiver:

Ask for help.  Caregiving is not a one-person job.  You need to stop carrying this burden alone.  Ask for help from other family members or friends whenever possible.  Perhaps this help can come in the form of a visit, a meal, or a gesture of financial support that would free you up from the tremendous weight of all the responsibilities of this role. Seek out community services or groups that might be relevant to your needs.  Consider getting some at-home care; hiring a nurse, a personal service worker, or a housecleaner might be the ticket to a welcome reprieve.  Try to let others do the parts that don’t have to be done by you so that you save your energy for the caregiving that makes the most difference if done by you, specifically.

Consider the relationship. It may be that the relationship you have with your loved one is compromised or complex and the stress of this time may exacerbate previous grievances or personality clashes making the caregiving that much more difficult. Consider to what extent the past or patterns in the relationship are contributing to the current challenges.  Work through some of those factors as needed to help alleviate any unnecessary tension or hurt.

Take a break.  Caregivers need to give themselves permission to step away from their caregiving to make space for their own personal renewal.  Often the 24/7 demands of caregiving can deplete their personal resources and caregivers need to take care of themselves so that they can continue to do the good work of loving and serving. Off-duty time is essential to a sustainable plan that acknowledges the energy required for this role.

Investigate the impact. It is important for caregivers to have a space to voice their thoughts and feelings. Often, caregivers don’t want to say some things out loud, (particularly to other family members) because they might sound ungrateful, callous, or lacking compassion.  For this reason, therapists can be a viable solution to provide objective and nonjudgemental spaces to share.  Finding at least one person with whom you can express your honest experiences will go a long way in helping you feel validated and understood.

Open up to others. Having supportive community members can be a sustaining presence that will carry a caregiver through a challenging time.  Seeking social support from friends and neighbours or through a local church or community group is a good idea, if it is not already in place.  Reconnecting with others and opening up about what you are going through is  an excellent way to remind yourself that you are not alone.

Navigate grief (or other strong emotions) with understanding.  Caregivers can be experiencing a kind of living grief, especially with elderly parents or chronically ill friends and family.  It can feel like they are experiencing losses along the way and these emotions can be unpredictable and overwhelming.  Give yourself grace to work through your grief journey in a way that feels gentle and helpful, knowing that there is no “right” way to be feeling as a caregiver.

Taking one or more of these ACTION steps may help you care for your own needs in a way that enables you to be fully present to your loved one and to continue to provide the compassionate care that you wish to offer without resentment or burnout.

To submit YOUR question for consideration in a future column, or for more information about psychotherapy services that could help with caregiver stress and fatigue, email sarahjoycovey@gmail.com.  

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