Dealing with Caregiver Stress
Stress! It’s inevitable in a Working Daughter’s life, but that doesn’t mean it has to rule, or ruin, your life. Even if it’s for only 10 minutes a day, it’s so important you find a way to destress and offset the pressures that often accompany caregiving.
This guide covers some of the best stress management advice we’ve researched, tried, heard, and found.
4 Strategies for Dealing with Caregiver Stress
Caregiving often feels like it will never end. When we are in the midst of it, we can feel stuck and unable to see any other way of life. Give yourself timelines and pace yourself one phase at a time. Even if your timelines are self-created, they will help you focus and not get too overwhelmed. For example, when my mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I focused on what I needed and wanted to do during her remaining time. After she passed away, I gave myself until the end of the year to accept the loss. In January, I gave myself until June to focus on all of my father’s appointments I had neglected when my mother was sick plus all of the paperwork I had to file following my mother’s death. It was a frustrating period full of appointments and insurance claims, but I told myself it would be over in six months. When my father came down with an illness, I created yet another timeline. You can get through each phase – but if you start thinking about “always” or “forever” you’re sure to get overwhelmed.
Find a Support System.
Maybe your partner is your rock or maybe he or she just doesn’t get it. Are your siblings checked out? Move on. Now is not the time to try to change someone. Accepting your role as caregiver means letting go of any magical thinking that someone will start behaving differently. When people show you who they really are, believe them. Look for help from the willing. If your family member is on hospice care, take advantage of the family resources. As your doctor for resources. Did a neighbor or a cousin offer to take on some tasks? Let them! Don’t do this alone.
During each self-defined phase of caregiving, give yourself permission to focus on the most critical issues and not worry about EVERYTHING. We cannot do everything at once – nor should we. During each phase of caregiving, evaluate what is most important to you – and limit that list to no more than 3-5 things. What must you do in your caregiving role? What must you do to maintain your career or advance it if that’s what is important to you? What is most important in your family? (Hint: it’s probably not housework but it may be eating dinner with your kids each night). Maybe you need to focus on your own health. Do that and put the rest on hold. It’s frustrating to defer parts of your life for a role you probably never expected to have (I know, I hear it from caregivers every day and I have experienced it myself) but it’s important to focus on reality. And we’re not talking forever – we are talking about right now.
Make the Choice.
I know caregiving may not be anything you ever planned for, and it may not feel like you had a choice in the matter, but you did. You made the choice to step up and take it on. This is important to acknowledge because feeling in control of your decisions helps you shift from feeling like a victim to feeling like a boss – and that helps with the stress. When we let go of what we planned, and we focus on what we have, we clear space in our heads and in our lives.
How To Bounce Back from Stressful Times
You may go through phases of caregiving where you truly don’t have time to put makeup on or take walks in the morning – much less get to the gym for a workout But one day, you find you can fit a simple act of self-care back into your life. Celebrate that tiny win. Recognize any effort, no matter how small, on your road to recovery.
It may be the last thing you feel like doing, but studies have shown that the mere act of smiling can make you feel better. While we don’t recommend forcing a grin all day, we have tested the fake smile theory and it works!
You may not like where life has landed you and the person you care for, but the sooner you accept your circumstances, the sooner, you can adapt to them. Go ahead and grieve for what was; grieving leads to acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you stop missing what was. Acceptance doesn’t mean you necessarily like the phase you are in. What it does mean is that you acknowledge where you are and you create a plan for this phase of caregiving. It means you stop resisting and start acting and that will reduce the stress you feel.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “virtually any form of exercise… can act as a stress reliever.” If you’re feeling flattened by stress and a true sweat is just too much effort to muster, take a walk. Even 10 minutes will start you down a positive path. Don’t think, just go. And the next day, do it again.
It is so easy to identify what caregiving takes from us. But it’s also important to recognize what we gain from it. Are you more resourceful? More resilient? Wiser? More patient? What makes you stronger and more wonderful?
Letting Go of Perfection: How to Be Good Enough
Change your thoughts.
A key difference between perfectionism and good enough is how you think about and react to situations. If you think you’re the only one who can take your mother to the grocery store, or dispense her meds, or clean her house, you are wrong. True: no one else will do these things the same way you do. False: your way is the only or best way.
If your father has a non-urgent but important doctor’s appointment on the same day of a really big meeting at work or your daughter’s dance recital, and you think it will be catastrophic for your Dad to miss his appointment, you are wrong. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that will happen if I postpone? If the answer isn’t Armageddon, then reschedule. A perfect person might think they can be in three places at once, but you are simply good enough. You’ll take him next week.
If you are stressed about the fact you haven’t been home for dinner in three days because your parent is in the ICU, ask yourself will this matter in five years? The answer is no. What will matter is you were with a family member when they were vulnerable and needed an advocate. In five years your kids won’t remember those three dinners. They will remember you were a loving and caring daughter who set a great example for them.
Change your words.
Erase these words from your vocabulary: should, always and never. Any thought that starts with, “I should,” like, “I should stay longer when I visit my mother,” or, “I should deliver a home cooked meal,” or, “I should be more pleasant about collecting a stool sample,” is someone else’s value system playing in your head. There are no shoulds.
Always and never also have no place in the world of good enough. If you catch yourself using the words always and never – “I will never get it all done,” or maybe, “I am always the one who has to…,” you are thinking like a perfectionist. When you are good enough, you know that if something doesn’t go your way, maybe it will the next time.
Change Your Behaviors.
If you really want to be good enough, you need to practice by changing some of your change your behaviors. This might be the most challenging part. Here are some suggestions for you try.
Leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight. Choose sleep over perfection.
Don’t make your bed, stop straightening your hair, and ball up your sheets instead of folding them. Use those extra minutes to call someone you care about.
Order your parents groceries online instead of going to the store even if you can’t get the exact brand of detergent or sauce they like. Use that time to read a book or take a nap.
If you can only fit in exercise once a week, or for only 8 minutes a day, do it. Forget about that perfect workout. Something is better than nothing.
Give it a try. Go for good enough. It gets easier with practice and it’s an effective strategy for managing caregiver stress.
Caregiver Hacks for Stress Free Doctor’s Visits
Okay, stress-free is an exaggeration. Follow these hacks for less stressful doctor’s visits.If your parent does do mornings, try to get the first appointment of the day. Alternatively, the first appointment after lunch is good too. It’s less likely the doctor will be running late at these times.
- Keep track of questions and concerns on your smartphone or in your caregiving notebook as you think of them so you can access them when you are at the doctor. This hack may seem obvious but so many caregivers think, “I’ll definitely remember to ask that.” And then they forget. Likewise, take notes during the visit. Read them back to the doctor before the visit ends to make sure you captured everything you needed to.
- Keep these forms with you at all times: Healthcare Proxy, Do Not Resuscitate aka DNR (if appropriate, Power of Attorney (if appropriate), your parent’s insurance cards, and their list of medications. You don’t want to be looking for these as you head out to an appointment and you need them with you in case of an emergency trip to the hospital.
- Have the doctor’s office email you forms in advance of your appointment. Believe me this is transformational! In addition to the above forms, some medical offices will want you to fill out additional paperwork. Have them email them in advance so you can fill them out before you go because your chances of arriving early for an appointment with your elderly parent are worse than your chances of winning the lottery.
- Scan lab results or take a picture with your smartphone. Apparently, despite all the medical advances we’ve witnessed in recent years, doctor’s offices are still using snail mail, fax machines, and dot matrix printers. So you cannot assume that the gerontologist will be able to access the test from the lab or that the primary care doctor will have received the scans from the specialist. A simple iPhone photo of a lab result can be the difference between a productive visit and a total waste of time.
- Plan buffer time. Try to plan an extra hour or better yet, 90 minutes. That way, if your parent needs tests, you can get them done the same day. If they don’t make you can take them out for lunch or to run an errand.
Studies have shown meditation not only lowers stress levels but it can also boost your immune system. For an overworked, overtired, overly stressed caregiver, that can be key. You can learn to meditate through books, websites and even apps. Headspace and Calm are two apps that guide you through brief, daily meditations. But our favorite meditation app is Insight Timer. Check it out: