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Stress Management

Editorial: The life a caregiver is stressful. Here's a reminder to take a breath, take a break

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Family caregivers

One of the biggest producers of stress comes from caring for an aging parent or a loved one who may have a dementia-related illness or other debilitating disease.

Caregivers often put so much energy into taking care of another person, they quickly can burn out and forget about balancing their needs, often compromising their own health and wellness.

They may experience fatigue, struggle with patience and perhaps even how to communicate with the person they are caring for. Often they are the sole income earners in a household, juggling a demanding full-time job along with full-time household chores and responsibilities. Sometimes the needs of younger children or college-age adults also are in the mix.

It’s overwhelming to manage another person’s life and AARP estimates there are some 48 million Americans caring for a loved one. Further, at least 5 million are students who find themselves in a situation where they are caring for a loved one, while pursuing an education.

April has been dubbed National Stress Awareness Month, which has been acknowleged since 1992. But caregivers don’t need a monthlong reminder to take some time to alleviate stress. There are supports and better practices evolving that may help lessen stress for caregivers.

With millions of Americans caring for loved ones, the RAISE Family Caregivers Act was introduced in Congress and signed into law in 2018. It serves to address some of the complex issues family caregivers face and cement into the discussion some real solutions.

RAISE stands for recognize, assist, include, support and engage. An advisory council emerged, following the legislation. The council released in 2021 a new report to Congress which highlighted a national approach to bolster the critical role of caregivers, via key goals:

  • Promoting greater person- and family-centered care in all health care and long-term service and support settings, with the person and the family caregiver at the center of care teams.
  • Assessment and service planning (including care transitions and coordination) involving care recipients and family caregivers.
  • Information, education, training supports, referral and care coordination to help create policies.
  • Respite care options, peer support, training on common in-home medical tasks and practical assistance like transportation.
  • Supports to improve financial security and workplace issues.

When the pandemic hit, most caregivers experienced heightened stress levels, caused by the disruption of daily routines, lack of access to services and, particularly in those early days, the scramble to find supplies. Finding that balance and managing the stress became harder.

But it’s not just family caregivers who need support. There are hundreds of volunteers who support the families and people taking care of loved ones.

At The Shepherd’s Center of Richmond some 175 volunteers serve the organization which empowers older adults through lifelong learning. A considerable number of them offer their time as drivers for clients who need to get to doctor’s appointments.

But when the pandemic hit, dozens of these volunteers found themselves at a loss. Most were older adults themselves and being in a high-risk group, were advised to stay home, avoid contact with people and especially not work as drivers, due to the contagious nature of COVID-19.

For some volunteers, that alone caused stress and anxiety, but the center found another way to support them, so they could continue to feel purposeful.

“Actually one gentleman was choking up on the phone when he called us to say he couldn’t drive because his children wouldn’t let him,” says Julie Adams-Buchanan, the center’s executive director. “When we weren’t offering transportation, our volunteer drivers became volunteer callers. They called our clients because we didn’t want anybody to feel isolated.”

Another thing the center did was pivot to virtual programming, which also helped volunteers to grow.

“Especially during the pandemic, nobody (could) see each other,” Adams-Buchanan said. “We did a lot of emailing, you know, and just touching base and … communicating with our volunteers. I’ve watched them learn and become so much so comfortable with Zoom when they weren’t at all in the beginning.”

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America also notes some helpful reminders to manage stress.

“Untreated stress increases the risk of caregiver burnout and can cause high blood pressure, heart problems, anxiety, depression and other health issues,” Jennifer Reeder, a licensed counselor and social worker said in an AFA release. Reeder noted it is OK and necessary for caregivers to prioritize their health.

Among some tips, the AFA suggests caregivers keep a calm attitude and remember to deal with only what is within a caregiver’s control. Additionally, caregivers should prioritize their health as best they can and get required sleep, exercise, eating properly and staying hydrated.

The nonprofit also recommends caregivers keep their minds clear and do exercise, yoga, listen to music, walking and trying mindfulness exercises, such as meditation.

Finally, the AFA says it’s important to stay socially connected as much as possible and find someone to talk to about what a caregiver may be feeling inside. The AFA has a helpline — (866) 232-8484 — with licensed social workers on call to offer assistance.

Additional there is a trove of information on the AARP.org website with solutions and other advice for caregivers.

Caregivers don’t need a designated month to remind them about self-care, but it’s a good reminder.

It’s necessary to stop, take a breath and take a break when able.

— Lisa Vernon Sparks

Lisa Vernon Sparks is Opinions co-editor. Contact her at: lvernonsparks@timesdispatch.com

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