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Stress relief for solo caregivers

Posted Apr 27 2009 11:42pm
I received an email after my post on Learning to Speak Up, which raised a good question :"... with regard to having some 'time off': What do primary care givers of elderly parents do if they don't have a spouse or partner..i.e., aren't married or in a committed relationship ? And perhaps don't have siblings that are willing or able to take over?"

In considering this question, I first had to take a step back. Here's what I see: Even people who have family or sibling support have trouble learning how to take a break, or that needing a break is OK. For some, allowing others to help them is really hard. They don't trust that another person will do things as well as they themselves will. Or they think that admitting they need a break or some help is a sign of inadequacy. For others, there's just honestly too much to do and too few hours to get it all done. In all of these scenarioes, there are two fundamental things going on:
1. Not wanting to give up control
2. Not knowing what your limits are and therefore not knowing how to set them.

If you are in the caregiving position without family to support or relieve you once in a while, you can decide either:
--To devote your entire life to your parent's care (because there's an endless list of things that need doing)
--To learn your limits and be willing to give up some control.

There's a spiritual element to this, of course. Setting limits and relinquishing some control means learning to accept that it's OK not to do everything that your parent could possibly need. But this is the way you regain some freedom and diminish the stress that comes with being chronically worried and overloaded.

There are some practicalities to making this happen which you have to be willng to pursue diligently:

1. Take a clear, hard look at priorities for care. Mental and physical health are usually the priorities, along with at least something that pertains to quality of life. What are you doing now that you can eliminate without endangering the first two or totally eliminating the latter?

2. If you can afford it, pay someone to take care of some of your current tasks. These could be things you aren't going to do for your parent anymore, or maintenance things in your own life that you could pay someone else to do:
  • Hire an independent caregiver to do what you can't do. To find the right person to work with/for you, you have to network like crazy. Call independent and assisted living facilities and talk to their staff for recommendations. Talk to your parent's neighbors. Search the web for senior services and private nursing services in your parent's area. Talk to them about their services and if they can recommend others who do more precisely what you're looking for.
  • Get a bill paying service or bookkeeper for your parent's bills and maybe also for your own bills. Or set up as many bills as possible for automatic payment. Yes, we all can write checks. But this is also something that you can easily job out and free up some of your time each month.
  • Get a house cleaner in every couple of weeks.
3. Learn about, use and invest in technology. There are senior cams that can be installed in your parent's home. There are services which will call your parent at daily or at preset times, to check they're up and about.

4. Call on your friends, acquaintances and colleagues for any routine chores that can be shared out. If you take your kids to school or sports, can they carpool with someone else?

5. Think long and hard about your parent's ability to continue living in their current home. Are they really coping and doing well? Or are they struggling to maintain the impression of independence, at a high cost to themselves and to you? If your parent's care is overwhelming you, and you can afford it, you may have to bite the bullet and move them, over their objections, to assisted living (see my post on The Big Move ).

6. Find the element in life that gives you peace, and award that to yourself every day. This could be getting a breath of fresh air, listening to your favorite music, cooking, picking up your kids at school, who knows... But find out what it is and commit to it for yourself every day. This means returning to living your life consciously and giving as much importance to yourself and your needs as you do to those around you.

And now, here's the key: Accept that you are no longer going to control as many aspects of your parent's care as you used to. Accept that there are some things that simply won't get done... And your parent will still be OK. In some case, you'll hire others to do what you otherwise would have, they'll do things differently and your parent will still be OK. It goes without saying that you're not simply handing over your parent to someone else without assuring yourself that the caregiver is trustworthy, and then checking on them from time to time. But you will build a strong safety net for yourself by doing so. You will give up that control for the benefit of your own health and well-being. This isn't being selfish. This is being pragmatic.
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