Caring for others means caring for you, too
COLUMN BY CHRISTINA KUNKLE, CERTIFIED LIFE AND WELLNESS COACH, R.N.
here are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who currently are caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.” — Rosalynn Carter
“What are the biggest challenges you face as a caregiver that keep you from feeling at your best every day?” I asked while speaking to a group that had come to enjoy “Caregiver Get-away Day,” a much-needed and well-deserved opportunity to relax, get inspired and re-energized. As they took turns sharing their struggles, many through tears of frustration, it became obvious that these heart-centered caregivers not
only appreciated the chance to be heard but also the bond that was forming between them. Among the top responses were feelings of exhaustion from being “on call” at night, stress due to medical and financial decisions, isolation from friends and lack of freedom, feeling overwhelmed when trying to balance self-care with caregiving responsibilities and helplessness related to not being able to control whether the patient would indeed recover. In addition, they felt guilty whenever they left to take time for themselves, especially when the patient pushed back against anyone else helping them. Chances are you see yourself as a caregiver in some way. Maybe you’re not a professional nurturer such as a nurse, doctor, health care or holistic health professional, but you fill a nurturing role within your career such as home health aide or social worker. Perhaps you are one of the 65 million American adults that nurture others in your personal life by caring for an aging family member, spouse, a child with special needs or friend with chronic medical problems. Research done by the National Alliance of Caregiving shows that in almost a third of American households, someone is serving as an unpaid
family caregiver, and the average family caregiver in the United States is a 50-year-old woman who has a paid job (more than half work full time) and spends 20 hours a week caring for an adult who used to be independent. Nearly half of family caregivers are actually on duty 40 or more hours a week and about a third still have children or grandchildren younger than 18 living with them. It’s easy to lose yourself in caring for others and put your own needs last, but serving others in the highest way includes you. You can only care for others as well as you care for yourself. I found the following quote a helpful reminder. “Taking care of ourselves is not a luxury, it is a necessity. As a nurturer, if you do not make a point to renew and recharge yourself, you will most likely end up stressed out, burned out or having a physical and/or emotional breakdown. When you do, everyone you take care of will suffer with you.” — Hueina Su, author and R.N. Wondering how you can generously give to others and still give enough to yourself so that your body, mind and spirit never run dry? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve created these tips to inspire and empower you with practical ways to nurture yourself every day, while you care for others.
It’s easy to lose yourself in caring for others ... but serving others in the highest way includes you. Ready? Great! Here are six Synergy Success Tips to help you get started. Break through isolation by reaching out and asking for support. Join a caregivers group that encourages you to embrace and express all your feelings, especially the negative ones. It’s essential to have a place you can share your fear, anger and resentment as you move through the many stages of grief. Many caregivers receive the brunt of a patient’s anger and frustration about being in pain, losing independence or facing an uncertain future. Having others remind you not to take that personally will help you move through negativity. It will also help you honor your limits by setting healthy boundaries with doctors, family members and others. The National Alliance for Caregiving is a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the quality of life
1. Get support
for families and care recipients by offering valuable resources, education and support for the at-home caregiver. Find out more at caregiving.org or familycaregiving101.org. Look for the gift or lesson hidden in your situation. Give your best emotional energy to the belief that this is either preparing you for something better or protecting you from something even worse. (Yes, it could always be worse, right?) Seek serenity — a disposition free from stress or negative emotion — by leaning into your faith. Many people find attending church or being out in nature renews them in very special ways. Offering up a simple prayer asking God (or spirit, universe, etc.) to guide your thoughts and actions is a wonderful way to partner with your higher power in tackling your challenges with more grace, ease and conviction. Trust your instincts — they’ll always steer you in the right direction.
2. Grow a resilient mindset
Be gracious and prepared when people ask “What can I do to help?” You may be the point person that oversees your patient’s care, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all by yourself. Take people up on their offers to help out
3. Promote a culture of team care
Feeling frazzled? Pause and breathe deeply. To thrive under pressure requires that you are able to transform stress into strength.
for a little while. At lotsahelpinghands.com, you can set up a free shared electronic group calendar to keep friends, family and colleagues updated on your loved one’s needs, appointments and availability for visits. This is a great way for would-be volunteers to know how and when they are able to help out. Don’t withhold information from the patient about their condition if they are able to understand and participate; they deserve to have a voice in their care and keeping secrets only adds an extra layer of unneeded stress on the caregiver. By introducing the concept of “team care” earlier than later, the patient is less likely to balk when others step in to provide care, and the caregiver is protected from fatigue, which may lead to burnout.
4. Move self-care to the top of your to-do list
Never get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired, and take lots of mini-breaks to keep your energy up. Resolve to break any pattern you may have of putting yourself last and please don’t skip your own regular checkups. Remember, being able to serve others in the highest way includes you! “By taking care of ourselves, we can better care for those around us. When we do this, we begin to care more about others and we become more available to our family, friends and our community. Our availability to be of service to the world is directly re-
lated to our ability to be of service to ourselves.” — Cheryl Richardson, author and life coach Reward yourself for the superb care you are giving your loved one by making a list of little things you enjoy, and commit to doing one every day. First thing in the morning ask yourself, “What is one thing I need to do to take care of myself today?” Then find a way to do it. Feeling frazzled? Pause and breathe deeply. To thrive under pressure requires that you are able to transform stress into strength. Here’s a quick way to stay focused: Step back and take a few slow, deep breaths. Think of something that makes you happy and relaxed. It can be a beautiful place, special person or fond memory. Smile and picture that in your mind as you inhale deeply, holding the breath for a second, and then exhale slowly while making a low, slow “humming” sound. Repeat five times. The humming sound stimulates your vagus nerve, which acts to stop the flood of stress hormones being released. This helps the mind and body slow down so you can function more calmly and clearly. Now you can respond appropriately when you feel overwhelmed by your caregiving responsibilities.
5. Breathe to thrive
Find reasons to laugh. A good sense of humor
6. Keep your spirits up
helps lighten the mood and is a great way to manage stress. Remember the good times and help the patient recall them, so you can both stay focused on the positive. Ease the stress and fear the patient is feeling by reminiscing about happy times. Help them recall funny stories, go through treasured photo albums, surround them with people, quotes, pets and whatever brings a smile to their face. Our bodies have a biochemical reaction to our thoughts and emotions, and laughter produces feel-good hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, which is proven to decrease both anxiety and pain. This is a great benefit for the patient as well as the caregiver. Depression is common for caregiver and patient if proactive steps aren’t taken to prevent it.
Thankfully, there’s an alternative to running out of steam because you’ve given everything you’ve got to everyone else. However, unless you put these tips into action in your own life, they will remain just words on this page. I hope you reach out in collaboration while caring for others. This powerful synergy promotes a positive expectation of partnership and friendship while allowing us to face our challenges as a team. As individuals, our caring is amazing, but I’m deeply convinced that together it becomes exceptional. Christina Kunkle, R.N. and CTA Certified Life and Wellness Coach, is founder of Synergy Life and Wellness Coaching, LLC and creator of the Synergy Success Circle. She helps busy women prevent burnout by promoting bounce-back resilience to stay focused, positive and excited about the challenges of work and life. For more information, visit www.synergylifeandwellnesscoaching.com or call (540) 746-5206.
How to recognize when you’re reaching burnout It’s important to watch for the warning signs of caregiver burnout and take action right away when you recognize the problem. You have much less energy than you used to It seems like you catch every cold or flu that’s going around You’re constantly exhausted, even after sleeping or taking a break You neglect your own needs, either because you’re too busy or you don’t care anymore Your life revolves around caregiving, but it gives you little satisfaction You have trouble relaxing, even when help is available You’re increasingly impatient and irritable with the person you’re caring for You feel overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless — helpguide.org