Is there anything more stressful than taking care of a sick or dying loved one? It's a burden, no matter how willingly borne, that often comes with a price tag of sacrificing the caregiver's quality of life in order to meet the needs of another. It's a formula for high stress, exhaustion and even developing health issues. Here are some tips to help caregivers avoid burnout:
Don't fly solo.
Get help. There are some life tasks that just shouldn't be attempted alone and caregiving is one of them. If the person being cared for is a parent, all siblings -- regardless of where they live or their financial state -- need to step up. A more typical dynamic that emerges among adult siblings though, is that one generally bubbles to the surface as the primary caregiver and the others let her -- yes, it is most often a woman (66 percent), according to the National Center on Caregiving.
Resentments ensue when siblings don't share the job and things can quickly get messy in the family relationships department. Old conflicts are revisited, claims of poverty are challenged, and statements such as "Mom always liked you better anyway" are heard. For the record, only 10 percent of primary caregivers feel the burden is distributed evenly. And 50 percent of primary caregivers say they never wanted the job in the first place; it just sort of fell to them.
So what's the solution when one sibling lives a great distance away, another claims poverty, and a third has her own plate full of health and financial woes? Eldercare expert and author Barbara McVicker says you just put your foot down. "Just state your position clearly: Hold a family meeting and say 'here are five tasks that need to be done this week. Now which ones will you do [or pay to have done]?'" The negative part of not pitching in is that it can result in long-term rifts, said McVicker, who stars in the PBS-TV special "Stuck in the Middle: caring for Mom and Dad." Her advice: Let your adult siblings know what's at risk -- which is your entire future family structure.
By the way, for the son who lives 1,000 miles away and wants to contribute money: There's nothing wrong with using some of that money to hire someone to stay with Dad while the principal caregiver gets a few hours off. If the son lived locally, he could come and stay with Pops himself.
Remember that your work has value.
We are a nation of people who associate our value to what we earn and caregiving is often an unpaid job. According to an AARP Public Policy Institute report, caregiver services were valued at $450 billion per year in 2009. How much is $450 billion? It's as much as the total sales of the three largest publicly held auto companies combined (Toyota, Ford, Daimler: total $439 billion) and almost as much as the 2009 gross domestic product of Belgium, the 20th largest economy in the world.
Don't quit your day job.
One very real issue caregivers face is that their employer may be pretty clueless about what caregiving actually demands. You need time to take Mom to the doctor and wait with her while she gets an MRI. You use your lunch break to pick up prescriptions. You may need to make calls during the day to see how Dad is doing, talk to his doctor, argue with Medicare. Without the support of an employer who allows flex time, some workers have no choice but to walk away from their jobs. Three out of four caregivers either do not work or had to change their work situation because of caregiving, according to Caring.com.
The National Alliance for Caregiving and Center for Productive Aging found employees who were dealing with eldercare issues need substantial time away from work to do so: 81 percent of caregivers used part of the workday to arrange care or check on their loved one; 70 percent took days off for caregiving; and 64 percent arrived late or left work early because of caregiving duties.
But McVicker urges everyone to think hard before you head for the office exit. "Being a "good child'" may not be the wisest choice," she said, adding, "and know that there are consequences." You will putting your own retirement at risk by stepping out of the workplace early. According to a study by Metlife Mature Market Group and National Alliance for Caregiving, women who leave the workplace early for caregiving lose an estimated $324,000 in lost wages, pensions, retirement funds and benefits.
As for those employers, the smart ones realize that losing seasoned workers to what is a personal crisis isn't a great option. Some companies give workers greater flex time or allow them to work from home as they need to to care for an elderly relative. And there is always the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. FMLA also requires that their group health benefits be maintained during the leave. One company known for its outstanding benefits across the life stages is the tech company SAS, which has a dedicated social worker in its Work-Life department to assist employees who are taking care of mature family members. Employees can also check out equipment (free of cost) from the company's Caring Closet stocked with wheelchairs, crutches, shower seats, and walkers.
Join a support network -- and also find a mentor.
While it's great to be able to get out and see your friends, using them to unload or vent sometimes defeats the purpose. Your time with them should be about you having some fun and taking a break from caregiving; talking about how awful things can put a damper on the outing. We're not suggesting that you don't confide in your friends or use them as sounding boards, but maybe save the whine about how your brother won't help or how crazy Medicare makes you for a support group. Do your best to enjoy your evening out, not bring the stress along for the ride.
A support group can be a great source for encouragement and advice from others in similar situations. Look for a mentor, someone who has walked down this path before you and knows which shortcuts to take. Being prepared for what is ahead goes a long way toward keeping things from spinning out of emotional control.
Learn what care actually entails.
Organizations such as the Red Cross and the Alzheimer's Association offer classes on caregiving, and local hospitals may have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing. McVicker suggests finding a group of experts before a crisis occurs -- people who you have vetted and established a relationship with. This should include financial, legal, and medical professionals, a geriatric care manager, a provider of in-home care and local resources within your community that you can call on for errands, meals, rides.
Come up with ways to mass communicate.
Sure everyone wants to know how Mom's surgery went and how she is recovering. But you don't have time for a lengthy phone call with each and every interested person. Plus repeating the same story over and over again is exhausting. Use a site like CaringBridge to communicate with everyone all at once. And when you catch your breath you can scan the well wishes and comments on your time.
Look for the silver lining.
Caring.com says that 75 percent of caregivers report having a sense of pride in the fact they are making the difference in the quality of life of a loved one. Cherish the moments you have with your elderly relative, look for ways to include him/her in daily routines and gatherings. Make as many memories as you can.