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Caregiver's Thrive Guide

Simple survival strategies


Caregiver's Thrive Guide

Caregiver burnout is a common occurrence. That's why relieving stress is healthy: if you're not taking good care of yourself, you can't take good care of others.

“For me, one sign of ‘caregiver burnout’ was crying in the car,” says Marc Silver, author of Breast Cancer Husband (Rodale Books, 2004). “Evidently a lot of guys do it, and it’s a welcome release.”

Relieving stress helps you stay healthy as a caregiver—because if you’re not taking good care of yourself, you can’t take good care of others.

Eldercare Coach Janice Wallace says that some people don’t even realize they’re caregivers. To reveal one, she asks, “Are you worried about someone? Do you help her find solutions? Do you check in with him at regular intervals?”

Caregiving involves a wide range of activities, such as calling a depressed friend regularly, looking after someone who’s just home from the hospital, monitoring the medications of aging or ill parents, or providing full-time physical or emotional support.

“You’re at a higher risk for stress and burnout if you’re caregiving alone, have complicated family relationships, or aren’t receiving support from your family or employer,” says Wallace.

These suggestions from experts will take you beyond surviving to thriving as a caregiver.

Find the right doctor

“If you can, choose a doctor who will exchange information with you—not just prescribe medications,” says Ontario-based acupuncturist Nancy Winlove-Smith. And if your loved one’s illness is complicated, make sure your doctor is up for it.

“Some doctors prefer not to take on the hard cases. Ask your doctor how he or she feels about the challenge of a complicated patient.”

Be good to yourself

“You’re juggling caregiving responsibilities, work stress, increased family duties, and a bigger share of household chores,” says Silver, whose wife survived breast cancer. “This heavy load comes with a big side dish of worry: How is my loved one doing? What will happen?”

Silver stresses the importance of taking time out: yoga, spiritual retreats (even just for 10 minutes), funny movies, afternoon hikes, gourmet meals, or coffee with a close friend.

Discover demarcation

“On my way home from work, when I passed a certain bridge on the freeway, I turned off the radio and inserted a CD. It was a deliberate symbol of de-stressing,” says James Storrar, a mental health nurse in Stonehouse, Scotland. “Now, simply driving under the bridge relaxes me. I leave my work behind, on the other side of that bridge.”

Choose a specific physical landmark (or even a room in your house), and intentionally change your mindset as you near it. Soon, you’ll automatically relax as you approach your place.

Rally your on-the-job forces

A support system at work can significantly decrease your stress level. Our eldercare coach advises preparing in advance before talking to your boss. “Discussing your caregiving responsibilities requires as much pre-planning as asking for a raise,” says Wallace.

“Be prepared with a list of your accomplishments, and focus on the value you add to your workplace. Also, share specific ideas about a more flexible schedule.” She also recommends knowing your company’s human resources policies and your rights as an employee.

Think outside the box

Margaret Entwistle lives near Peterborough, Ontario, and takes full-time care of her mother, who struggles with cancer and Alzheimer’s. “My stress reliever is fostering puppies,” says Margaret. She volunteers with the Lions Foundation of Canada’s Dog Guides program, which places puppies in family homes for one year.

Margaret’s furry friends infuse her with the energy she needs to take care of her mom—plus, she’s improving the world in her own way.

Let it out and ask for help

“Cry, curse, and shout,” suggests Silver, who considers his car a safe place to express all his feelings. “It feels great! And if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. No one can read your mind. Once I yelled at my kids because they didn’t help as I dragged groceries from the car on a rainy afternoon. My older daughter said, ‘Gee, Dad, if you’d just ask, we’d be happy to help.?

Tina Bishop, RN, takes it a brisk step further: “Get your family involved by assigning different duties to different family members on different days.”

Think long-term

“I ask my clients what it would be like to be doing what they’re doing—and more—in five years,” says Wallace. “Some people turn pale at this question.” Even if the thought of the future is daunting, your best bet is to tackle it head-on.

Balancing short-term stress-relief techniques with long-term solutions will ensure you thrive as a caregiver.

Warning signs of stress or burnout

  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Hopelessness
  • Fatigue
  • Bursts of ill temper or anger

More survival strategies

  • Support groups
  • Hobbies
  • Writing, painting, sculpting, or sketching
  • Spa days
  • Gratitude journals
  • Scrapbooking or photo-organizing
  • Day trips
  • Professional counseling
  • Spiritual retreats


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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD