According to a survey by AARP, in 2013, about 40 million Americans will serve as unpaid family caregivers, often while continuing to work or go to school. The survey estimates that these caregivers provide an average of 18 hours per week performing their caregiving duties—which can include anything from watching over the finances, to seeing to it that pills are taken, to cooking, bathing, and cleaning.
All of these caregivers will feel the inescapable stress of the job. Some end up feeling depressed, overwhelmed, and resentful. They may even develop their own health problems. Others will find that caring for another provides them with a deep sense of enrichment and a feeling of accomplishment, that they are meeting challenges and having a positive impact on the health and well-being of their family member. Is there something to be learned from the way these people approach their caregiving work? What are the secrets of these successful caregivers?
The simple act of staying positive can have a major impact on emotional and physical health—even in the face of the constant obligations and uncertainties of a caregiving situation—keeping stress and the havoc it wreaks at bay. Successful caregivers manage to look on the bright side of their daily challenges, often by finding humor in their work, showing compassion, taking pride in what they are doing, and incorporating healthy strategies into their day.
Caregivers have a lot to keep track of—medications, doctor’s appointments, bills, schedules, etc. Successful caregivers know that getting organized and having a system in place to respond to daily priorities, as well as the unexpected, can lessen the stress of caregiving and free up time for things they enjoy. These caregivers stay on the ball with master folders and emergency contacts lists to keep vital information at their fingertips; they use family calendars so as not to miss appointments and to keep everyone in the loop of their respective caregiving duties; they find ways to ensure medications are taken, whether by requesting blister packs from the pharmacy or setting up alerts on their phones; and they take time to plan and set realistic goals for what they can and must (and simply cannot) accomplish.
Successful caregivers often see themselves for what they are—an indispensable member of the healthcare team. They have taken the time to learn about the medical condition their family member is contending with, either by visiting medical information websites or making the most of medical appointments by asking the right questions. These caregivers often grow into the role of patient advocate: making sure their family member is getting regular check-ups and seeing specialists when necessary; checking for possible side effects from medications; and alerting healthcare workers of any changes they are perceiving at home.
Caregivers often forget to take care of themselves, which can make them vulnerable to a number of health ills. Successful caregivers understand that caring for themselves is another part of the job. They manage to carve out time for doing something they enjoy, whether it’s a night out with friends or a night in with a good book. They take the time to talk to their boss about adopting a more flexible work schedule or to see what benefits might be available to lessen their load. They combat stress and anxiety from the start with relaxation techniques like meditation, exercise, and healthy eating, and they get regular check-ups to ensure their health is on track. And, perhaps most importantly, they reach out when they need to—enlisting the help of family, friends, care professionals and support services. All of these things can provide caregivers with a sense of accomplishment and allow them to experience the emotional rewards and lasting benefits of caring for another.