It is a little known fact but after a senior has a major medical event (like a fall or heart attack) the primary caregiver often experiences a greater decline in their health than the patient. While the patient is resting and recuperating, the primary caregiver is overworked and stressed by the duties required to attend to the patient’s needs.
Remember what flight attendants tell us to do in case of emergency, “Place the oxygen mask on yourself first.” They know that we can’t help anyone if we are blacked out from oxygen deprivation! Unfortunately the primary caregivers of the nation don’t have flight attendants standing by to offer that sage advice. In order for primary caregivers to remain strong and able to deliver care and avoid caregiver burnout, they MUST continue to take care of themselves.
In the midst of the stress and hurry of daily caregiving, our healthy parents are letting their routines slip. They stop doing volunteer work, their attendance at religious services decrease, they forget about their normal exercise routines, they stop attending social activities, and they put off routine health care like physicals and dental appointments. After time, the caregiver experiences burnout and all of this can lead to depression and health problems.
As the adult child (or just a concerned friend or family member), there are 4 ways to help a parent avoid caregiver burnout.
Before you take any steps remember, this generation of seniors are VERY independent. Often times the healthy spouse feels like they can handle the caregiver duties and they resist help. Or they don’t want to burden their already busy adult children. They will particularly resist if they feel like their adult children are trying to swoop in and fix things. To get your parents to buy in, start small. Once they see that it is going well you can offer more help.
Don’t wait until there is an emergency before you start helping, be proactive. Start building a NETWORK of people to help: neighbors, adult children, extended family, and paid caregivers. Start with each member of the network providing a small help: a neighbor who provides a ride to church, a son who comes over for an hour while mom goes to the store, a paid caregiver who stops by once a week to change bed linens, etc. Find small things that people can help with and schedule the help before it becomes critically necessary. In the event that an emergency occurs, you will have a team in place that can simply ramp up their help.
Arrange Routine Breaks
The key to all of this is to schedule ROUTINE help. Establish a fixed schedule (i.e. you come over every Saturday at 9 to sit with Dad while Mom goes out). If the schedule isn’t fixed, your loved one is likely to try to reschedule and put it off. Build a calendar of helpers. If you have a tech savvy group of helpers, set up a Google Calendar that can be shared.
Help with Meals
Don’t discount the importance of bringing meals over. When time is crunched and individuals are stressed, nutrition slips. People default to frozen dinners, junk food, and fast food. When nutrition is slipping it is harder for the sick individual to get better and it sets the caregiver up for health problems. To help them out you can set them up with a meal service (through Schwann’s or Meals on Wheels) or schedule friends and family to bring meals over (here is a great online tool for scheduling meals from multiple helpers: http://www.mealtrain.com).
Don’t underestimate the importance of the little actions. While bringing over a meal or hanging out with dad for an evening may not seem like much to you, it may be the lifeline that the caregiver needs to stay sane. Knowing that help is going to come at a consistent time and in a consistent way each week can provide a huge relief to primary caregivers.
Caregiver burnout is a serious issue, for more information visit our Caregiver Burnout section.