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.
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
There it is: the street where you grew up and the house coming into view. All your memories flood back as you park the car and unload the bags. When you come inside, things aren’t the same. No decorations and no special smells or music greet you. Your parent is delighted to see you but that is as far as it goes.
Holidays reveal the way things are now. It takes extra effort to put up decorations and bake special dishes. Your parent may no longer be capable of doing the extras.
How does that scene might make you feel? It is hard to view your family home which is now unfamiliar in its lack of holiday efforts. Perhaps, in your heart of hearts, you had a feeling things would be different this year. Perhaps, you even felt some physical symptoms as you reached the old neighborhood. Perhaps you felt irritable during this trip. The intuitive parts of us “record” small bytes of information from contacts with our parents earlier in the year. These impressions were stored away because the other parts of our lives are so busy. These bytes of impressions don’t go away because we grew up with these parents. We know them in depths we cannot put in words. Your feelings are your intuition comparing the way things were with the current data and flashing a signal to prepare you: heed that signal. Once you understand that these vague physical symptoms are signals they lose their power. You are not getting sick, but you may feel sick at heart. Feeling a sense of loss is real, so are feeling sad or lonely. Realizing things have changed is also real.
Here we are at your parents’ doorway; what do we do with our feelings? The doorway is not the place to deal. Let’s go through the process and look for times and ways to handle your feelings. We have all had some nerve-wracking event and we all know how we reacted then. We are the same people now. Your feelings will hit you, plan for it.
Take a moment for yourself when you feel symptoms or irritation. Yes, take a moment for yourself. You will not be able to cope with this process if you do not take yourself into account. If you are alone put your pen down, or take your fingers off the keyboard. Feel your feelings. That might include shedding a few tears, let them flow. It will work better than at your parent’s doorway. Perhaps you do not shed tears, punch something safe to punch! Take a few deep breaths.
Next; reach for your positive memory. Select one or two things that were special to you about the holidays at home. Was it music? You know where the records are stored and you can retrieve them. Was a particular dish? If you can’t bake it, there are people who can. Order it for pick up. That pick up trip could be an outing for you to share with the parent or a chance to give you a break during the visit. Perhaps it’s decorating you remember. Think about those items and prioritize. Don’t get everything out. Putting up a couple decorations is another activity you can share with your parent. Resolve yourself to the new situation. This will not be a holiday like the past. You can make it a celebration: which is our presence with each other. That’s the greatest present.
Senior depression presents several problems. It appears as “mild” even if it doesn’t affect seniors mildly. Depression symptoms may surface as physical complaints. Seniors grew up in an era when receiving mental help = CRAZY. Each of those problems presents a barrier to treatment. How does a caregiving adult child get a senior to accept the help they need? They really need it. Even though seniors account for 13% of our population, they comprise 18% of all completed suicides! Our society must take senior depression seriously. Medication may not be enough. Religion/spirituality (R/S) may be a treatment pathway that seniors can accept.
Religious and Spiritual Factors in Depression: Review and Integration of Research is a review of literature: a look at 444 research articles on the subject of R/S. All studies were reviewed for their methods. 178 studies were found to be rigorously designed and their data analyzed. Most studies found that seniors who a religious or spiritual practice did better at managing depression or facilitating its resolution. The review found that R/S beliefs may be used to cope/adapt to stressful life circumstances. Seniors certainly face those; life-changing illness, loss of career, loss of home, and loss of spouse/friends. Their lives need ways to adapt.
A second part of this study, found a lower likelihood of mood or psychiatric disorder for those who regularly attended religious services. There was one caveat; if the R/S tradition was very orthodox, the senior may feel more judged than supported by their R/S tradition. You know your senior. You know what type of R/S practice they hold. If there is a supportive faith community; try it. This same review of literature noted that “pastoral counselors spend 140 million hours (doing) therapy each year”. That’s more hours than provided by the American Psychological Association! Since it is part of the counseling media, ask for this help for your senior.
Does it help? The greatest medicine is no good if your senior won’t take it. The same applies to counseling. If it’s socially acceptable to meet with the pastor; use that method.
Health and Spirituality, examined the relationship between health and spirituality. Researchers found that the modern, western era’s response to illness/depression was a departure from other cultures and most of history. In other times, religion was considered an integral part of healthcare. Major illnesses focus the patient’s attention on ultimate meaning, purpose and transcendence. The Nurses’ Study found that women who attended weekly religious services had a lower mortality rate that those who never did. Regular religious attendance was associated with a lower rate of depression. Wow! Does our society need to return to an integrated/ whole person strategy to effectively treat seniors? I believe we should.
Have we become too quick to provide pills to our seniors? The Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has a “rule of 4”. If the senior is taking more than 4 kinds of pills, their risk of medication conflicts and issues increases. While medicine might be helpful, other strategies could make a difference without raising further medication conflicts.
How many pills is your senior taking? Is it a constant battle to get them to take medicine? I suggest you discuss the idea of trying regular religious attendance and pastoral counseling instead. As you discuss this method with the doctor, please keep this study result in mind. One study gave cancer patients and their doctors a list of 7 factors to rank when making medical decisions. The patients ranked faith in God 2nd. The physicians placed it last. Thus, it is the adult child/caregiver who must advocate for alternative approaches. Always discuss changes with the doctor. Try adding God; He just might help your senior.
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.