Dear Caregiver: Who’s Taking Care of You?

Tips on Self Care for the Caregiver

Bend realtor Vickie Johnson recalls the seconds just before her life as a full-time caregiver began.

She was up before dawn, prepping for an early client meeting, when the phone rang. One of those unnerving, odd-hour phone calls that makes your heart skip.

On the other end of the line was Vickie’s mom, 83-year-old Lynn Pert. Normally strong and confident, Lynn sounded worried and in pain “I need you to get me to the emergency room, honey,” Lynn told her daughter. “Can you get here right away?”

During the rush to the hospital Vickie learned that her mom had been keeping a secret.

For months, she was enduring pain in her abdomen. That morning the pain became “unbearable” and it was growing worse.

Hours of tests later, doctors delivered the worst possible news. Lynn’s liver was overtaken with cancer. She had six months to live.

Lynn insisted on trying to continue living independently in her own home — and for a while it worked.

Then, late one night, after a trip to the bathroom, Lynn fell and hit her head on the counter, knocking her unconscious. When she woke up, she crawled to her nightstand and pulled the phone to the floor to call her daughter. Too weak to complete that call or stand, Lynn curled up and waited.

“Thank goodness I called mom that morning and kept calling,” says Vickie. “When we found her, I knew she needed full time care. It was an enormous privilege to move her into our home and tend to her needs. But caregiving can be exhausting — physically and emotionally.

Here’s where all caregivers can learn something from Vickie’s story.

She knew that the best way to give her mother excellent care, was to first take care of…Vickie.

“I was fortunate to have help from my husband. He would have the conversations with my mom I couldn’t do without crying, which would upset her. He would ask her if she was scared and she appreciated being able to talk about that. But I knew I had to try very hard to take care of myself. I ate healthy, got adequate sleep, exercised and found some alone time to process my thoughts. I also didn’t wait to ask for help from hospice, those angels.”

“If you’re a caregiver, I urge you to take care of yourself. Don’t feel guilty about asking for help from others when you need it. Take deep breaths. There’s a solution and you’ll find it.”

Unfortunately, caregiving doesn’t always go as well as Vickie’s story, especially if you’re doing it alone. Caregivers are at a greater risk of suffering from depression, stress-related diseases and even early death.

As you’ll learn in this blog, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Meet Kim Lindauer, Marquis’ administer of AgeRight Care at Home, which provides customized, comprehensive in-home assistance and care plans. Kim has a double major in management and marketing from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, has worked for the Mayo Medical Center and specializes in staffing healthcare, providing nursing resources and administering home healthcare. She’s sharing some proven ways you can make sure you stay strong and healthy on your caregiver journey.

Q: Kim, could you give us a sense of how rapidly caregiving has grown and why? And what do you see for the future?

A: The need is big now and only growing due to so many baby boomers aging and a lower population of younger people to care for them. COVID has really taken many people out of the work force, especially women, who are normally caregivers. The fact that people are living so much longer creates a higher need as well.

Q: Caregiving comes with some risks for the caregiver that we don’t often talk about. What are those?

A: Based on data from the US Department of Health and Human Services, family caregivers face a variety of risk factors for poor health. Just look at these alarming statistics.

  • Caregivers are at higher risk for stress-related illnesses and their rate of depression is two times higher than the national rate.
  • 67% of caregivers report not going to the doctor because they’re putting family needs first.
  • 51% reported not having the time to take care of themselves and nearly the same amount said they’re too tired to try.
  • 53% say caregiving has made their health worse, which also affected their ability to provide care for someone else.
  • Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that within four years of conducting the study, older spouses who reported an emotional strain due to caregiving had a 63% higher mortality rate than older adults who weren’t caregivers.

Q: What should we consider before committing to becoming a caregiver?

A: Well, first, take a little self-inventory of your personality strengths. Being a caregiver requires compassion, humor, assertiveness, being present and the ability to ask for assistance. Can I repeat that humor helps? You can avoid a lot of problems – financial, relational, physical and emotional – if you also honestly answer these questions:

  • Do I manage my time well and can I set boundaries on how much I can help?
  • Am I physically able to care for my loved one? What does my physician say about my ability?
  • How is my own mental health?
  • Do I have the time? Am I willing to sacrifice that time?
  • If I’m going to be an unpaid caregiver for family, am I able to afford that?
  • Will the stress of caring for someone else cause unexpected interpersonal conflicts among my friends, family, co-workers and others?
  • How much of my own life – my interests, passions and work – can I continue if I become a caregiver?

Q: Let’s say we commit to caregiving. What are the warning signs we’re burning out?

A: Some of these are just part of everyday life. We all get tired or sad sometimes. You want to watch for when these feelings become overwhelming. An overwhelming lack of energy, fatigue, mood swings, anxiety, sadness, anger and impatience. Feeling like caregiving is controlling your life to the point you’re neglecting your own physical and emotional needs. I want to red flag arguing and anger, especially if that’s happening between you and the person you’re caring for.

Q: What are the first steps to getting some help?

A: The important thing is not ignoring the signs. No one can do this alone and it’s a show of strength, not weakness to ask for help. Here are some ideas.

  • Share what you’re going through with friends and family and see if they can take one small task off your plate: picking up groceries or a prescription; getting the kids off to soccer practice; or mailing a package.
  • Give yourself the opportunity to take a brief break from your caretaker routine – schedule a massage, a lunch with friends, a movie, a walk alone ––whatever gives you joy. Write it in your calendar (in pen, not pencil!) and make it happen.
  • Check out the benefits your employer may offer for family leave, counseling and community resources. You may be surprised what’s available.
  • Communicate with other caregivers. Build or join a support group. You’ll be helping them too!

Q: If we decide we can no longer be a caregiver and we need to investigate getting some outside help, what questions should we ask?

A: Once you decide your loved one would be better served with outside help, there are a few key things to think about. Answering these will also help your peace of mind knowing you are doing the best for your loved one.

  • How much extra help do you and/or your loved one need? His or her physician can help determine whether it’s still safe to stay at home with specialized home care services or whether a higher level of care, such as assisted living, is needed.
  • How much would it cost to get extra help?
  • Does the person needing extra care have long term care insurance or will this be paid for out of pocket and do you have the funds to pay for services?

There are many agencies out there that provide caregiver services. You’ll want to make sure you choose the one that is an excellent fit for your loved one. Knowing he or she is in good hands will also safeguard your own emotional and physical health.

For more information:

Kim Lindauer, Marquis Administer of AgeRight Care at Home

Marquis AgeRight Care at Home provides help with managing medications, insurance and costs, starting care, and wills and estates.

AARP Family Caregiving