While the patient may get all the attention, caregivers can easily go unnoticed. Often the primary caregiver is a family member who has been suddenly thrust into this demanding role and they’re unprepared, untrained and ill equipped emotionally or even physically to handle it. This makes the caregiver especially vulnerable to stress and to getting sick. Your loved one is depending on you. But what happens when you get sick and are unable to be there?
First, it’s important to understand that you, the caregiver, may be extra susceptible to health problems so be sure to not overlook your own well being while attending to your loved one’s. Dr. Keith L. Black serves as Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and Director of the Neurological Institute at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He believes that caregivers don’t recognize their own health needs because they are so focused on the patient. And symptoms that may pose as simple fatigue, irritability or sadness could be signs of a real health problem. So it’s important not to dismiss them. Dr. Black notes that caregiver stress can compromise one’s immune system, which can then lead to all kinds of health problems, from minor to very serious. He’s found studies that conclude caregivers have an increased likelihood to be clinically depressed and may be at a heightened risk to over-stimulate the production of inflammatory chemicals in their body, which can lead to the cold, flu or other more serious ailments like arthritis, diabetes or even heart disease.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests looking for the following signs of stress…
- Feeling angry or sad,
- Feeling like it’s more than you can handle,
- Sleeping too much or too little,
- Having trouble eating or eating too much,
- Losing interest in things you used to enjoy
If you get sick or are unable to be there for your loved one, you should have a backup plan. Rob Harris, a Senior Professional in Human Resources, a caregiver and author on caregiving, outlines steps you can take…
- Identify people who are ready, willing and able to step in should you be away for any length of time. Decide if anyone is able to make critical decisions (legal, financial, regarding health insurance, consult with doctors) in place of you. Make a list of these potential substitute caregivers. Keep copies for yourself and give each person copies as well as copies of the following…
- An emergency contact list of relatives, friends, neighbors and times they might be available should their assistance be needed,
- A list of pre-screened, competent home health care agencies that you are comfortable calling or your stand-in can call for help. These people are trained and can provide medical assistance,
- A list of all your loved one’s medications, how and when to administer them. Be sure the substitute is cleared to receive prescriptions from the pharmacy,
- A list of any diet restrictions and food/drug interactions,
- A list of the doctors, their locations and contact numbers plus a schedule of doctor’s visits. Make sure your substitute is cleared to speak with medical professionals,
- An overview of the patient’s medical history, timeline of events or diary of activities so that the substitute can be up to speed with their regimen, plus communicate with doctors
Feeling under the weather may be unavoidable, but you can help avert your own debilitating health problems in the first place by taking steps to take care of yourself. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests the following…
- Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces stress and depression and helps keep you fit,
- Eat a good, balanced diet with smart food choices that protect you from heart disease, bone loss and high blood pressure,
- Get regular sleep,
- Don’t overwork your back,
- Ease your mood by taking slow, deep breaths, listen to soothing music, take a relaxing bath,
- Make time for yourself. Go away and do something you enjoy (see a movie, gather with friends, etc.)
Dr. Black agrees; “If you are a caregiver, hats off to you. Please take care of yourself and listen to your body and brain. While you may believe it’s best to pour all your energy and time toward caring for your loved one, if it’s at the expense of your own health, it will affect the quality of your life and your care. If things get overwhelming, ask for help.” Find other caregivers who you can talk to. They are people who truly understand what you’re going through. Be smart and be sure you’re there for yourself, too.