Multiple Sclerosis Centers of Excellence
Caring for the Caregiver
James Shepard, LICSW
Dedicating time, energy, and emotional commitment to another person can be fulfilling in so many ways. For many, being a caregiver provides richness in life and an expression of love for the person who needs assistance. Yet, the physical, mental, and emotional demands of care giving are great and this can sometimes lead to fatigue, stress, and feelings of depression, what many refer to as caregiver burnout. For caregivers to avoid burnout, it is vital that they be aware of their own limitations and learn to care for themselves.
It may be difficult for caregivers to recognize burnout in themselves. Often others around caregivers may notice changes that are not easily recognized by the caregivers themselves. Some of these symptoms may include depression, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, constant exhaustion, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, withdrawal from social supports and activities, anxiety, feelings of resentment, and increased use of medications, alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. Caregivers may experience all or some of these symptoms. The good news is that there are strategies to help avoid caregiver burnout.
An important first step is to acknowledge that once someone is a caregiver, they have the potential for burnout. With this acknowledgement, caregivers can then take steps to prevent or relieve burnout. There are several ways this can be achieved.
Support systems can include family, friends, other caregivers, health care professionals, specialty organizations, church members, and others. It is important to share thoughts and feelings with others. Some particular outlets for this can be through support groups, professional counseling, or the simple act of sharing with family and friends about the joys and tribulations of care giving. It may be important for some caregivers to also maintain their spiritual health and support. Support from others can be the most important defense against burnout.
Everyone needs a break from time to time and caregivers especially need this time for rest and rejuvenation. Respite care typically means that caregivers get a break by having someone else take over the care giving responsibilities for a period of time. Family, friends, and certain professional agencies can provide this service through in-home assistance, adult day health, and community nursing facilities. Some Veterans are eligible to receive respite care through the VA. Several chapters of the National MS Society provide respite care through their care management and financial assistance programs.
Exercise and Diet
As with any positive health approach, one way to stay healthy is to exercise regularly, practice healthy eating, and get plenty of sleep. Exercise can also provide time alone to refresh the body and the mind.
Establish Personal Time
Personal time can be quite difficult to arrange, and some caregivers may feel guilty if they spend time on themselves and not their loved ones. However, it is essential for caregivers to take time for themselves - one cannot be a caregiver 24/7. This personal time can include short walks, reading, listening to music, meditating, staying involved in hobbies, and doing whatever the caregiver’s personal interests may be.
Making the home environment as user friendly and accessible as possible and taking advantage of assistive technology can make life easier. There are several programs and grants available through the VA to make medically necessary home improvements. Information on these benefits can be found on the MSCoE webpage VA Benefits and Services for Veterans with MS.
VA Caregiver Support Program
The VA Caregiver Support Program offers a range of services and support for Veteran caregivers. Please visit www.caregiver.va.gov for more information.
Care giving is a difficult undertaking. It is a journey that should not be made alone. Support is crucial and there are many avenues to obtain this support. If caregivers neglect themselves, they cannot provide proper care to others. If you are a caregiver, reach out to others, do not hesitate to accept help from others, and remember that your mental and physical health are as important as your care giving responsibilities. Thank you for all you do.