Caring for someone shouldn’t mean you stop caring for yourself. But experts say too many caregivers often put their own physical and emotional needs aside when they start caring for someone.
So much so that about 60 percent of caregivers die before the person receiving the care does, said Joan Brubacher, a licensed specialist clinical social worker who’s been working with caregiver issues and caregiver support groups for the past decade.
“You can’t overstate to caregivers how important it is to take care of themselves,” said Brubacher, who is on the staff of Prairie View, a Newton-based mental health provider.
High levels of stress can lead to chronic health problems and burnout for caregivers, experts say.
As many as 70 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers, for example, develop more than one unhealthy condition or disease, said Linsey Norton, program coordinator with the local Alzheimer’s Association office.
“I tell individuals that in order to take care of a loved one, they have to take care of themselves,” said Connie Mansaw, caregiver program coordinator for the local agency on aging. The agency offers various caregiver resources, including support groups and respite relief.
“Self-care is important. If you are taking care of someone who is depending on you, what happens if you’re not taking care of yourself? Then there’s two of you in need,” Mansaw said.
Susan DuPerier knows how stressful caregiving is, but she learned early that getting help and “coming clean” about her husband’s diagnosis was helpful. Three years ago her husband, Wes, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I’m trying to do everything I can to take care of myself,” said DuPerier, who quit a full-time job at Green Acres, a natural foods market, to help care for her husband. She still works there one morning a week, as a way to stay connected to co-workers and do something she enjoys.
Sharing her husband’s diagnosis with co-workers, friends and others has helped, she said. From her hairstylist, for example, she found out about an adult day care facility. Now she takes her husband there at least once a week. She often uses those breaks to go to work or enjoy some quiet time at their Wichita home.
Brubacher and other experts offer these tips for keeping caregiver stress and burnout in check.
“A lot of people have a fear of asking, but most people are sincere about helping,” said Mansaw.
“Everybody wants to help. It’s a natural reaction,” said Terry Ercolani, an engineer with Cessna who found himself in a caregiver role when his wife, Deanna, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2011. “I got to the point where I was ready with an answer. It helped to be specific.”
For example, he knew he needed help preparing meals for the couple and their four children. He used the online site www.takethemameal.com to coordinate donations of meals.
“I began to see the value of doing something normal in an abnormal time,” Thomi said. “When I was refreshed, I was a better caregiver.”
Taking a break from caregiving also means the care recipient gets the benefit of someone else’s company, whether it’s in-home respite care or at an adult day care, Brubacher said.
“People in a support group who are in a similar situation are very affirming and they can provide some really good solutions,” Brubacher said.
In Wichita, for example, the Alzheimer’s Association, Victory in the Valley and the Central Plains Area Agency on Aging offer support groups for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients, cancer disease patients and the elderly, respectively. Many departments on aging offer caregiver respite programs, where one can receive a few hours a week of free respite care.
For the DuPeriers, cranking up the music and dancing around the house has provided some special memories, Susan DuPerier said.
Focus on the positive aspects of caregiving whenever possible, Brubacher said. “Think about how wonderful it is that you are taking care of another human being.”