Imagine you’re sitting quietly in a meeting or religious services; suddenly your heart starts pounding. You feel like your blood is coursing through the veins in your arms and legs. It’s bewildering and scary: Why?! There is nothing about this setting that calls for such a reaction. Yet, you have this reaction. It is important that caregivers understand what leads to this reaction and what they can do about it.
It’s a “fight or flight response gone wrong. It developed when we had to run away from Saber Tooth Tigers. Our ancestors were successful, that’s why we’re here. Those ancestors passed down to us their methods of coping with their world. Our modern world doesn’t have the same kinds of stressors, especially for caregivers. Our stressors are less clearly defined And they last longer. Our stressors change shape; one minute we’re dealing with the house-the spouse-the kids-and-the job. Then there’s a crisis and we’re caregivers for Mom! From that point forward, our caregiving increases but with no way to know when the need will become greater or how long caregiving will last.
Our bodies respond as our ancestors’ once did; we produce Cortisol to rise to this crisis. The process goes like this: Stress causes the Hypothalamus to secrete. That triggers the Pituitary Gland to secrete. The Adrenal gland secretes Cortisol. This process has several names: HPA Axis, HPA Cascade or Syndrome X, or AKA Insulin Resistive Syndrome. (Wouldn’t it be helpful if we could all agree on one name?) It’s not the crisis that’s the problem. It’s the crisis that doesn’t end that creates bad effects on caregivers.
The effects show up in different ways. Cortisol encourages promotes fat deposits in the outer layer of the body, especially the waist. Some caregivers gain weight. We can measure this effect by doing a BMI (Body Mass Index). Other caregivers have different conditions; heart disease, Type-2 Diabetes and Stroke. We can measure Cholesterol levels through a C-Reactive Protein lab test. We can also do a cheek swab to check Cortisol level. However, how many doctors don’t even ask patients if they are caregivers. The tests are there but they are not used to evaluate identified caregivers at this time on a general basis. You need to ask for them.
When our bodies rise to meet a crisis: they must also let down. Even Saber Tooth Tigers would give chase and then give up. The caregiver’s duties do not end the same way. In fact, they do not “end” unless we place some “ending points” into the caregiver’s life. That is the role of self care, to provide end points such as respite and small moments. That’s why it’s necessary to spread the caregiving load so it doesn’t fall on one person. That is why we need to enlist family to give caregivers this kind of support. Otherwise, the caregiver can be sitting quietly in religious services and the Cortisol response “alarms” for no exterior reason. We need to advocate for caregivers to be recognized in the medical arena. Learn more by taking our course; Preparing to Parent Your Parent.
When someone advises you to, “take care of yourself”; that doesn’t explain how. Elder caregiving is so new that some methods are still under development. However, we know some things that work and some to avoid. Self care does not mean a day at the spa. For many caregivers such a day would be out of reach financially or out of time to devote to a spa. Therefore, plan to care for yourself in moments, not hours. Think about your life like your heart; it beats all the time. Actually your heart takes a tiny rest between each beat that allows it keep going. When you care for yourself in moments, you pause and continue.
Try these ideas. Put up a sign saying, I NEED A MOMENT, to remind yourself to pause. Put up other signs family can see to remind them that you might need a moment before you can respond to their requests. Is the person in need bleeding or on fire? If the answer is no, then it’s OK for you to take a moment. It’s OK to train your family to allow you to do so. It’s OK for you to ignore repeated pleas for your attention (for a moment). Training takes time but you’re worth it.
What do you do in that moment? Be sure you are safe. If you’re up on a ladder, get down first. Focus on something blank, like a wall or the ceiling. Breathe, deeply, through your nose, hold and count to 3 or 4. Let your breath out through your mouth but slowly; 1-2-3-4. Now, if you can afford the time, try looking at something peaceful; out a window, at a picture, or at some memento that is meaningful to you. Breathe again the same way.
Many caregivers respond with; “I don’t have time to …” You’re right, time is at a premium. Most caregivers find themselves in that role at the same point they also have the house-the spouse-the kids-the job-the pets and MOM! You have a lot on your plate. Sometimes caregivers believe they can wait until they have time. By waiting until later, the damage from lack of self care will have done its worst. Undoing damage is much harder. The best intervention is prevention. Prevention comes in bits of time you claim now.
Suppose you actually have a whole hour to yourself. It’s a gift! Ask yourself, “What refreshes me?” Notice I didn’t say what can I eat nor where can I sit down? Some caregivers eat to cope with stress. We need nourishment but not that way. Rhythmic movement, like walking, can help us feel less worn and is surprisingly refreshing. If you can’t go far; walk around the house or around the block. If you live in an apartment building, walk in the hall. “Go get the mail”, that errand will buy you a few minutes. Try to set a self care routine just as you have set other routines with child care or at work. Routines help us get things done without doing us in.
Some things to avoid include sugar and alcohol. The stress hormone, Cortisol, takes sugar and converts it into weight around your middle. Sugar may not be sweet; baked goods convert to sugar. As part of a balanced meal they’re fine; as a snack, not so much. Large amounts of food can have a numbing effect; like a Thanksgiving dinner. When we feel numb, our minds seem to turn off. When you see you have time and turn to the refrigerator; ask yourself why are you eating? In a similar way, alcohol can create a numb feeling. We believe we’re relaxed but a caregiver’s immune system is more vulnerable and needs extra protection that alcohol doesn’t provide. Alcohol is also a depressant, which won’t help caregivers.
So how does one “turn off” the constant “list-making” that goes on in the caregiver’s mind? Try other things. Try relaxing teas like Passion Flower, Elder Flower or Chamomile. Try playing some relaxing music that’s meaningful to you. Try a rhythmic movement “dance” (try it with your partner). Try a hot shower or better, a hot bath. Try placing essential oil of lavender in your bedroom. All of these set the stage for relaxation. Develop your own mediation or routine to think about at bed time instead of a to-do list. There are also tapes available. So self care comes in moments you claim as your own. To learn more ways to cope, take our course: Preparing to Parent Your Parent.
This is the first of a three part series about the often-heard advice to caregivers to “take care of yourself”.
What does that mean? Since elder caregiving is relatively new, many caregivers aren’t sure. Let’s begin with the word self care; it means considering yourself as part of the caregiving plan. Your health and mental well-being are a vital part of providing care. Think of your contribution in other ways: wouldn’t you take care of equipment used to care for the elder? Wouldn’t you make sure to have enough supplies on hand? Wouldn’t it be hard to provide care without equipment and supplies? Think how much harder would it be if you weren’t able to provide care? You’re the most important part.
Caregivers may believe that they should put their needs aside: no! That’s like pouring yourself out without putting anything back. Such a belief leads to caregiver burnout. Some caregivers burnout emotionally, others develop health problems, and still others find their families are disrupted. All are symptoms of burnout. Many symptoms go unrecognized. Now that you are aware, you can be alert to the influence of caregiving on your life.
Some caregivers believe that the entire task is theirs alone; not necessarily. Part of self care is letting go of that assumption. We ask for help in other parts of our lives; accountants, plumbers, physical therapists, or lawn crews. No one believes these helpers take away our responsibility; they contribute to our successful process.
What do you do in a typical day? How many of those tasks require direct interaction with the elder? Who else could do them? For example; laundry must be done. Why does it have to be you? Does it matter to the elder who does it? Letting others into the care process is part of letting go. Letting others in is part of self care.
Self care can mean admitting to yourself that you feel certain things in response to caregiving. Some of those feelings are not too “nice”. Frustration, anger, despair and sadness are all parts of the caregiving journey. If a friend came to you admitting to these feelings would you send them away? Perhaps you would listen to them and sit with them. Sadly, I meet caregivers who whisper their negative feelings if they say anything at all! Part of self care is becoming your own “best friend”. You and that self need to talk to each other. Admitting to those not-nice feelings doesn’t make bad things happen. In fact, it allows you to let out some of the pressure behind those emotions. Self care begins with recognition of one’s value, affirmation and support for the caregiver.
To learn more, take our course: Preparing to Parent Your Parent or call (217) 787-5866
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.