Caring for the Carer

Are you putting your life on hold in order to care for someone else?

I have seen many clients who are carers, whether for a spouse, relative or loved one, a parent, a child or a friend. They are dedicated to looking after the needs of another, but this can mean that they are not always focused on taking care of themselves. Being a carer can bring its own problems, such as:

  • Isolation: carers are often unable to get out much, particularly if the person they are caring for is housebound.  And when they do get out it is often to cater for the needs of the other – such as hospital visits or appointments.
  • Self-neglect: the carer becomes so focused on the needs of someone else that they may become neglectful of their own needs, whether physical, mental, emotional or all of these.
  • Survivor’s guilt:  this can occur especially if the person being cared for is terminally ill, and particularly if he/she is a spouse.  The carer can feel guilty that they themselves are not the person who is ill, dying, or unable to take care of him/herself.  It is particularly common if both the carer and their charge have been involved in an accident as a result of which one has become incapacitated and the carer has not.
  • Depression:  feeling hopeless about the future, either his or her own or that of the person they are caring for.
  • Stress: carers can feel overwhelmed and unsupported, if they are coping without much of a network of others who can help them, or services to assist them.

Image (c) Simon Cocks 2010 Flickr Creative Commons

If you are a carer it is important that you make time for yourself somehow.  This may feel impossible at times, but any small amount of time where you can remove your carer’s hat and have even a few minutes to yourself, will help you psychologically, emotionally and physically. Even if it is difficult to get away from the place where you are a carer, try to arrange for yourself to have regular rests where you are focusing only on yourself – having a short rest, a cup of tea, or time to read a book or magazine. If you are able to take time away from the person you are caring for – take advantage of this as regularly as possible, and do not feel bad about putting yourself first.  In the long run you will be better able to care for the person you are looking after.

Become comfortable with asking for help.  Do you have any friends, family members or neighbours who would be able to help you out from time to time?  Things that they can help with may include shopping, housework or staying with the person you care for while you have a break. Don’t be afraid to ask – if you do not ask, nobody may be aware that you need help. Do you have any emergency contingency or contacts (a person or people you can call if you need help in a hurry?)  It may be worthwhile to make arrangements so that if anything unexpected happens you know who to call. If you can’t think of anyone whom you can ask for help, your GP or local library may be able to advise, or call your local council’s social services to find out if any assistance is available.  I have met carers who feel that asking for help would be like giving in, or an indication that they are not a good carer; you will be a better carer if you are taking care of your own needs, and that may mean getting extra help from time to time, or on a regular basis.

Are you officially registered as a carer?  If not, and you are looking after someone daily, you may be able to get access to resources or assistance, including financial, by having your status formalised – social services can advise. This can be especially helpful if there is nobody you can ask for help or if you need a break, as respite care arrangements are sometimes possible.

Help the person you are caring for more, by not allowing them to become helpless.  If you care for someone above and beyond their actual needs, you may be dis-enabling them from doing what they can do, which will in turn make your job increasingly more difficult.  Become comfortable with expecting him or her to do as much as they can for themselves. Encourage and support them if necessary, but never prevent them from doing as much as they are able to, as it is beneficial for them to maintain some degree of autonomy or ability.  They will feel better if they are not totally dependent and you will feel better that you can allow them to do something for themselves, even if it is with your help.

The job of being a Carer can be all consuming.  If you feel like you have lost touch with the life you used to have, remember things you used to enjoy doing and find out whether you can take them up again. For example, arts, crafts, sports, keeping fit, dancing, singing, playing chess…… anything that you used to have fun doing.  It’s important to remain engaged with things that represent you and your own interests. You need to have a life away from being a carer, and you need to have fun.

Think about the future – this may not feel right if you are caring for someone who is terminally ill, but in this case it’s even more important that you consider what lies ahead for yourself.  What will you do once the person you are caring for has passed away?  Putting off thinking about it will not stop the inevitable from happening. It really is okay to make plans and to be prepared and it will help you to cope when the time arrives.   Many carers feel cut adrift when the person they are looking after dies; your life will go on and you will need to be prepared to move into a new phase.  If the person you care for is likely to die soon, do give them the chance to talk about it, if they can and if they want to.  Some people really want to talk about what will happen when, and after, they die.  Don’t feel bad introducing the subject, but be gentle and move on if they do not wish to talk about it.  If they do want to talk about it, ask them what they want – where they would prefer to die, who they want to be informed, what arrangements they would like for their funeral and for their belongings.

Many people also find it helps to talk or meet with other carers. Some organisations and charities offer carers support groups, helplines, befriending services or counselling.  Here are a few links where you may find details:
Carers UK
NHS Carers Direct
Rethink Carer Support
Mind – information for carers
There are many other local resources and organisations too, so look online or ask your local library or council.

Finally, always remember to put yourself first; if that’s not always possible, ensure that you do so as often as you can.   You may be a carer, but you deserve to be looked after too – and self-care is very important.  If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, don’t soldier on thinking you have no options.  Ask for help and above all, look after your own mental and physical health.

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