If you’re in the Boomer Age Group – roughly ages 49 to 67 – you may have an elderly parent – or even a son or daughter – for whom you’re the active caretaker. As such, you have special health needs of your own that you need to be aware of. Taking preventative measures to safeguard your own health will allow you to continue your important job of taking care of your parent, child, or for whomever you’re caretaking. Here’s what you should know…
Caretaking Can Take a Toll on The Caretaker
I have a patient; I’ll call her Mary, age 53, who has been a caretaker for her elderly, 90-year-old father for the last few years. Her father has Parkinson’s disease and the drugs that are used to treat his condition have added a side effect of dementia to his usual Parkinson symptoms that Mary deals with everyday. Most of the time her father seems like his normal self, can get around on his own, sometimes with the help of a walker, and just needs supervision.
As such, Mary has moved into her father’s home and has even created an office there. In addition to caretaking her father, she continues to work full-time at her business. In the morning, she helps her father get up and dressed, gets his breakfast, and settles him down with his newspaper or a television show. Some days she takes him to a doctor’s appointment or grocery shopping. If the weather’s good, she’ll go with him for a walk – with his walker or in some cases his wheelchair. Other than her father’s occasional falls, the days can be pretty uneventful and “normal”, but tiring.
Often in the evening, Mary’s father experiences a condition called “sundowning” which makes him hallucinate – sometimes badly. When this happens her father can become very difficult for Mary to handle on her own. He can become combative and verbally abusive as he doesn’t recognize her. He becomes scared and paranoid and can do dangerous things like trying to escape, not realizing that he’s actually home.
At these times, her father doesn’t sleep well, even with the medications his doctor has prescribed, and he often has traumatic nightmares. These hallucinations and rambunctious behavior often keep both Mary and her father up a good part of the night. In the time she has been caretaking for her father, I’ve noticed that Mary looks tired, stressed out, and overwhelmed. Her normally low blood pressure started to go up, she wasn’t sleeping well, started having headaches, stomach upsets, and even developed gingivitis – an inflammation of her gums. Caretaking stress was making Mary sick. This is a fairly common thing amongst caretakers in general. Following are some tips I recommend to my patients about safeguarding one’s own health while caretaking.
Taking Care of the Caretaker
First, let me congratulate you on putting forth the effort to become the caretaker of a sick parent or child, or anyone who’s suffering from an illness. It can be a daunting task but can also offer a lot of positive emotional benefits to both you and the person you’re caring for. Secondly, understand that it’s not selfish to take time to take care of yourself while caretaking. You can’t be much help to an ill person if you become ill. Be sure to keep up with the following things:
1. Take time to exercise: At least 30 minutes, or more if you can fit it in, a day. Caretaking is a stressful, demanding situation and exercise helps burn off the stress hormones that get released into your system.
2. Eat a healthy diet. Caretaking occupies a lot of hours in your day and you might think it’s easier to grab fast food or junk food to keep your energy up. If you start your day with a good breakfast high in protein and low glycemic carbs (oatmeal, oat bran, etc), your energy levels will be higher throughout the day. Be sure to include a lot of high antioxidant fruits and vegetables, and/or supplement with extra Vitamin C, E, D, and B vitamins – especially B12 – to prevent deficiencies.
3. Keep your own medical appointments. Many caretakers start to neglect their own regular check-ups, dental appointments, etc and problems can arise. High stress levels can increase blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and aggravate conditions like periodontal disease that can lead to other tooth and gum issues.
4. Know your limits. In caretaking, there may be certain physical jobs – like lifting, bathing, or transporting an immobile person in a wheelchair, picking them up when they fall, etc, that you just may not be physically able to do. Find someone to assist you with these activities. Trying to accomplish tasks that require more physical strength than you have is dangerous for both you and the patient. You could drop them and cause them further injury, or you could seriously damage your back.
5. Learn. Read materials, talk to physicians, to learn about the special symptoms that go along with the person you’re caring for. Learn how to work with the person’s symptoms instead of working against them. For example, getting upset with a person who’s incontinent is not going to help either of you. Experiencing hallucinatory dementia can be frightening if you don’t know how to handle the condition. Mary learned that rather than try and convince her father that his hallucinations were not real when they happened, she began to “go along” with them, talking about them with him, making light of them when she could, as if they weren’t important. This had the effect of de-escalating them into nuisances rather than frightening experiences for both.
6. Seek help. You can’t be a caretaker 24 hours a day – even nurses rotate shifts at hospitals. Recruit other family members to help out or hire professional caregivers for part of the time so you can take a necessary break. Get other people to help you with non-caretaking duties like preparing meals and/or cleaning the house – this saves a lot of your time and energy for actual caretaking. In your break time, do something you enjoy, something that rejuvenates you, so you can keep a positive attitude towards your role as a caretaker. Becoming depressed, exhausted and resentful doesn’t help you do the job you wanted to do as a caretaker for your loved one.
Taking care of your own health while caretaking, is just as important as taking good care of the ill person. You want to create a positive caretaking experience for both you and the person you’re taking care of. Making time to ensure that you remain healthy and maintain a refreshed and positive outlook toward your caretaking role will help ensure that the person you’re caretaking gets the best of your love.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Natural Health News