As a caregiver, you may want to do it all and take care of your loved one alone. But there are times when you may need help -- either temporarily or permanently. Here are signs that it may be time to ask for support, and how to get it.
It may have been easier to give care when you were driving to doctors’ appointments or cooking a few meals. But if now the person's needs are very physical -- maybe lifting, bathing, and dressing -- you may need to ask for help.
"You'd be surprised what people do," says clinical psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. "I've seen people who have had heart attacks but are still pushing a loved one in a wheelchair or carrying them up the stairs."
That doesn't mean the person you're caring for must leave his or her home. You can hire a home health aide, for example, to do some of the things that you can no longer do.
"Very few families can do all the hands-on physical care without assistance," says clinical psychologist Sara Honn Qualls, PhD, director of the Gerontology Center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "Only you can advocate with the health care system and see the whole health care picture, but physical care is something where you can partner with others."
Your own health
Stress is very common for caregivers. Sometimes you're so busy taking care of someone else that you don’t take good enough care of yourself. Some stress is normal, but signs your stress is too high include:
- trouble sleeping
- very little energy
- getting sad or angry easily
- little interest in things that used to make you happy
- headaches, stomachaches, or other physical problems
- weight gain or loss
"If the caregiver gets sick, the person needing care is in the worst shape possible, because their primary caregiver is no longer there or is out of commission for a while," says Suzanne Mintz, founder of Family Caregiver Advocacy and author of A Family Caregiver Speaks Up.
“Financial planners say, ‘Pay yourself first,’” she says. “Family caregivers need to think that way as well in order to really be as effective as they can be and not destroy their own health.”
In other words, take care of yourself so you can take care of the person you’re caring for.
If you're stressed or sick, ask friends or family members to take over your caring duties for a while. Or consider respite care, meaning your loved one can get a few hours or days of care in their own home or in a full-care facility while you get a break.
Sometimes a loved one might need more physical care than you can give them. They might need medication you can't administer, or they might need to be carried or moved. Emotionally, they can be so upset or angry that they become violent or mean. They can be hard to control physically. In any of these cases, it might be good to get help from an experienced professional -- either at in-home or in a facility. They can take care of your loved one's physical needs and won't take it personally if he or she lashes out.
"It can be hard for family to understand that an older person with dementia is not doing or saying things on purpose," says internist Cathy Alessi, MD, president of the American Geriatrics Society. "They understand their loved one has dementia, but sometimes it's difficult to translate that into the day-to-day realities of taking care of someone with memory impairment."
Caregiver support groups can also be very helpful with advice on how to handle memory and behavior issues.
As a caregiver, you often have to deal with grief -- over the loss of the person you once knew. It's not just your loved one who has lost her old life. You've lost the relationship you had and the life you shared. That can lead to feelings of sadness, grief, and anger.
When you wake up every day with a feeling of dread or anger, it's time for a break, Qualls says. "When I'm giving and giving and giving to someone who can't return that, I'm going to have some resentment," she says. "When that flares in anger, that's a good sign I need more self-care."
Ask for help from friends and family, or get your loved one respite care. "When a caregiver takes a break and experiences such huge relief that they almost collapse and realize how weary they are, that's time to reassess how much one person is doing. The caregiver situation may need to be restructured."