Caring for yourself when you are a caregiver BY DR. SURITA RAO
Many people in our society, predominantly women are taking care of loved ones with chronic illnesses or aging related conditions today. They may be spouses or children of a loved one suffering from dementia.
There is a lot of sympathy for the person suffering from the disease but we sometimes forget or underestimate the day to day stress and strain on the person looking after someone with a chronic illness. There is a loss of their old lifestyle, needing to be around the other person most of the time, worrying about them, housework, preparing special meals and getting the person to stay happy and follow their wellness and care plan.
All this can leave the caregiver, exhausted, frazzled and with no time or space of their own. They may feel frustrated or even resentful at times of the elderly person with dementia who has to be managed constantly to make sure they donât wander off and get lost but feel guilt at the same time for these feelings. Care giving can be very rewarding but also create a unique type of emotional and psychological stress.
This can have serious effects on the caregiverâs mental and physical health. They may become exhausted, depressed, and anxious and even suffer from illnesses at a higher rate. These include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or arthritis. Their immune system may get depressed and as result they get sick more often. They may sleep too much or too little and gain weight. Levels of the stress hormone, cortisol may be higher in their systems leading to a multitude of negative health effects such as abdominal weight gain and low energy all the time.
What can caregivers do to carve out some time and a separate identity for themselves within the relationship? One important step is to put aside some protected time for themselves to do activities they enjoy or that are stress relieving such as exercising, going to the movies, shopping or a concert. Adding a pet to the household may seem like additional work but may be an excellent stress reliever and mood enhancer. It is crucial to ask for help and not try and do everything yourself. There are services in the community such as housekeeping help or day care for adults or even a temporary nursing home placement for the loved one, allowing the caregiver to go on a vacation. Some are covered by insurance and others have to be paid for by the family itself. It is important to ask other family members for help with both time and effort looking after the person who needs, looking after and also to pick up their share of financial help. These conversations can be difficult but it is better to have them in a calm and matter of fact way rather than hold all thoughts and feelings in, to âkeep the peaceâ as it can lead to emotional exhaustion and feelings of resentment. Putting aside some time to maintain social relationships, activities and friendships is also important, so that the caretaker does not feel socially isolated.
Creating a balance between the needs of the loved one who needs looking after and your own as a caretaker is crucial to remain a happy, well adjusted, healthy human being, both for yourself and for the person you are looking after.
Surita Rao, M.D. is the physician leader of the Behavioral Health Services at Saint Francis Care and host of the show, Mental Health with Dr. Surita Rao on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness channel. She completed medical school at Bankura Sammilani Medical College in India and did her psychiatry residency training at St.Vincentâs Hospital in Staten Island, New York and the Yale University School of Medicine. She did her addiction psychiatry fellowship at the Yale University School of Medicine. She has been on the faculty at both Yale and Emory Universities. She is an Assistant Clinical Professor with the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.
Her clinical work has focused on addiction psychiatry, including both substance use disorders and dual diagnosis issues. She has worked with impaired physicians and other health care professionals.
Upon completing her fellowship training, she worked as the Medical Director of the methadone maintenance clinics at Yale University School of Medicine. She has been the Chair of Behavioral Health at Saint Francis since 2002 and is the President of the Saint Francis Behavioral Health Group.
Dr. Rao is on the Board of Directors for the American Society of Addiction Medicine and is co-chair of their national membership committee. She is also on the Executive Committee of the Connecticut Chapter.
Dr. Rao is chair of the physiciansâ health committee at Saint Francis. She also serves on the Board of the Saint Francis Foundation and has been appointed as a Corporator for Saint Francis Care.