Caregiver Stress: Why Caregivers Must Put Their Own Oxygen Masks on First

When I approached ChicagoNow about writing this blog, I emphasized how tumultuous life can be for a caregiver. I described the dichotomous nature of caregiving in blunt terms, writing, “While caregiving can be warm and cozy and rewarding for family members, it can also really suck.”

Right? By nature, we are not prepared to take on the physical, emotional, and practical demands of caregiving. And yet by nature, we are innately drawn to care for others (some may disagree with me, which I respect, but I cannot let go of that tender spot I have for the human condition).

It is precisely this discrepancy between what we want to do, or feel we should do, and what we can reasonably handle that creates stress in our lives. In the case of caregiving, stress is more complex because another person’s well-being is closely affected by our own actions and choices. This is why it’s essential for caregivers to manage their own stress for the sake of themselves and their loved ones.

NCI-Daniel Sone

The analogy I often use, as do many others in human services, is the mandatory safety lecture we receive from the flight attendant when our plane is about to depart. The speech is boring, but it contains a gem of a recommendation: “In the event of a change in air pressure, please put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting the person next to you.”

If we are not able to breathe, literally or figuratively, how can we ensure the well-being of another? I know this is easier said than done, which is why this is only one of several blog posts I’ll write on this topic. But consider the consequences.

I read an interesting study last week in The Gerontologist about health behaviors among caregivers (the study group was made up of Baby Boomers, but I’ve seen this phenomenon among other age groups as well). When caregivers and non-caregivers similar on other demographic variables were compared, caregivers had a greater chance of engaging in negative health behaviors such as smoking and regular soda and fast-food consumption.

Caregiver stress can lead to physical maladies and bad habits; it can also create emotional difficulties and severe hiccups in the caregiver’s social network. But the good news is that there are tools, resources, and information to help caregivers identify and manage caregiver stress so that these effects are mitigated.

Remember the caregiver blueprint I suggested? Simply delineating your situation on paper and coming up with a plan can help you get caregiver stress under control. There are changes you can make to your diet and exercise routine as well as adjustments in thinking and behavior. Resources are available to give you a break now and then, which can greatly reduce caregiver stress. All of these techniques and strategies will be discussed in future blog posts.

Here’s a good place to start: Take the Alzheimer’s Association’s Caregiver Stress Check to assess your current level of stress and learn about resources that can address your unique situation. Simply knowing the nature and level of your current stress can help you formulate a long-term plan to manage the stress that is inevitable to caregiving.

How is caregiver stress affecting your life right now? What topics regarding caregiver stress would you like to see covered in this blog? I look forward to your comments and insights, because those doing the hard work of caregiving every day are the real experts. Thank you for what you do.

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