Millions of seniors and people with disabilities could not maintain their independence without the help of caregivers. Caregivers help people with Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) like paying bills, bathing, dressing, shopping, and managing medicines. They are a source of companionship and emotional support for care recipients.
But, caregiving can sometimes be an isolating experience as they can be exhausted and overwhelmed by the responsibilities. It can feel like you’re the only person dealing with so much.
That’s why caregiver support is so helpful. They are filled with people involved in the same kind of situations. Being able to talk with others who understand what you’re going through to reduce stress, offer connection & support, and validate your experience.
Caregiver supporters are great people to ask for advice and vent their frustrations. With support, you would not have to worry about confusion or judgment.
To shed some light on the same, we interviewed a home care industry expert to bring her perspective on helping caregivers prevent burnout and practicing self-care.
Who Did We Interview?
Theresa Wilbanks is a caregiver advocate, author, speaker, and podcast host. Her passion and purpose are to help family caregivers create a more meaningful, less stressful experience by empowering them with skills & strategies for navigating their caregiving journey with confidence.
Her work “Navigating the Caregiver River: A Journey to Sustainable Caregiving” is a guidebook for helping caregivers easily sail through challenges.
Let’s get started with knowing what our expert thinks of the home care industry:
After a few years of caring for Dad, I realized my path was unsustainable. The stress and overwhelm were all-consuming, negatively affecting my physical, mental, and emotional health. I deconstructed the caregiving experience, the pain, and the struggles and developed the 12 Sustainable Caregiving Strategies. These strategies helped me recover from burnout, manage the turbulent emotions, and regain control of the chaos.
I founded Sustainable Caregiving to connect caregivers with resources and soon realized that more support was needed. My mission evolved to empower caregivers with strategies to confidently navigate their journey and create a less stressful, more meaningful experience. There are 53+ million family caregivers in the US.
Many feel alone, isolated, and afraid, wondering if they will survive their experience. We can each make a difference and toss a lifeline to our fellow family caregivers. My part is providing presentations and facilitating workshops to share the 12 Sustainable Caregiving Strategies, coach skills, and provide hope. I also work one-on-one and provide coaching to family caregivers.
One of the most powerful things we can do as caregivers to help our aging family members maintain dignity and independence is to demonstrate empathy and recognize the many losses our family members have already experienced.
Our family members are motivated by the fiercely held desire for freedom. In contrast, our motivation is to keep them safe.
Fear drives both motivations, and fear is fueled when our safety concern is perceived as a threat to independence.
We can be confused by what appears to be a lack of logic when our family member demonstrates risky behavior, such as getting on ladders. When we look at the motivation behind the behavior, we can respond with curiosity rather than a strong reaction. We can resolve the safety concern in a way that allows our family members to maintain their dignity. Awareness helps us identify that fear is driving our response. And when our reaction is met with resistance, our ego joins the conversation. When we take a second to pause, we can act rather than react. We can rewrite the script and minimize friction and conflict.
Fear, ego, and anger are closely connected. When fear and ego join the discussion, our choice of words, specifically verbs, may not contribute to a productive conversation. We can begin to choose our words and our verbs more carefully. The verbs that give control back to our family members can help us reach an agreement. Verbs such as manage, control, and choose can be triggering when used incorrectly and empowering when used to show we understand and empathize with our family members. We can let our family members know they are still in control, managing their affairs and making choices that direct their life. We may be there guiding the efforts, but it is their right, and they need to be “in control.”
We can view burnout as a spectrum, and caregivers can be anywhere on the spectrum at any given time based on what we are going through.
Setting, modifying, and reinforcing boundaries protect us from burnout. The best time to set boundaries is when we are first wading into caregiving. We may have started helping with finances or running errands. Without limits, tasks that are at first occasional can grow so much that it becomes easy to place our well-being last.
When we continually prioritize the needs of others over our well-being, our emotional state and our coping abilities are diminished, leading to feelings of overwhelm and a state of being that is not sustainable. Anger, resentment, and frustration can signal that we need to communicate our needs and limits. Because caregiver burnout occurs when we have given too much of ourselves, establishing boundaries is how we express our needs to have more control over how our time and energy are spent. Setting boundaries is self-care.
Prioritizing our well-being helps prevent burnout and exhausting our abilities to cope with caregiving challenges. We can prioritize our well-being while caring for our family member when we reimagine and micro-dose self-care throughout the day.
Cultivating and practicing mindfulness also helps to prevent burnout. Caregiving is a trigger minefield. The awareness we cultivate through mindfulness helps us avoid the triggers and disarm the mines. When mindful, we can be present and avoid the stress we experience when we ruminate on the past or worry about the future. When we are in a constant state of worry, stress, and overwhelm, we are not able to prioritize our well-being. Our emotional and physical health suffers.
This excessive and repeated stress leads to burnout. When burned out, we are exhausted and unable to think clearly or make our best decisions. When we are mindful, our perspective opens, and we see and accept those distracting thoughts for what they are. The thoughts are our fears, our past experiences showing up, and the thoughts are seeds that have been planted. They all grew together, and it’s hard to tell the difference between the thoughts that will become the powerful trees and the tangled weeds. When we are mindful, we don’t resist or shut out these negative thoughts, we accept them, and in doing so, they lose their power. Our focus on the present returns our power.
I help caregivers rediscover self-care from the perspective of their new role. We may not have recognized our hobbies and interests as self-care before caregiving.
Going to the gym, reading for pleasure, sleeping, or spending time with friends was just a part of life.
As we begin to care for a family member and priorities shift, it is not uncommon to give up our interests and hobbies bit by bit until our entire life revolves around caregiving. Accepting help, lightening the caregiving load, and using the time gained to engage in self-care activities are important steps to recover from or avoid caregiver burnout and stay connected to our values and the things that make us feel whole.
Robyn Conely Downs said, “Self-care is doing the things that make you feel more like yourself.” The activities we enjoy that renew our energy and keep us connected to ourselves are each a version of self-care. The challenge for us as caregivers is to reimagine or modify the experiences that bring us joy when layers of responsibilities and stress become a part of our day. We can also discover new caregiver-friendly interests that help us reset and care for ourselves while caring for our family member. Self-care will look different for each person and may change from day to day, possibly minute to minute.
Sleep, nutrition, hydration, and movement are critical to our well-being. It is also essential to schedule and attend annual wellness visits. Without adequate attention to our physical well-being, we will not have the energy or capacity to care for ourselves in a way that sustains us.
In contrast, we care for our family member. We often focus on physical self-care, but there are many other types of self-care, such as emotional, spiritual, practical, financial, social, and mental. When we reimagine self-care, we incorporate all forms of self-care that support our well-being.
With trial and error, we learn how to incorporate well-being activities into routines. Activities and routines can be modified to exist within our caregiving reality seamlessly. Strategies such as setting boundaries, finding effective methods to release frustrations, and micro-dosing self-care throughout the day empower us as we confidently continue our journey. These self-care activities evolve with our situation, circumstances, and needs. They help us navigate change, process the caregiving experience, and generate internal growth. These components weave through daily activities and change the mood, the flow, and the intensity of the experience.
Caregiving creates the perfect storm of emotions. Guilt, anger, and resentment swirl. Fear and frustration fuel the cyclone of spinning thoughts and emotions, reducing our ability to think clearly or feel any sense of calm. When the pressure from these emotions builds, the risks can include bursts of release in the form of angry reactions or harm to our health from holding in the negativity. Some strategies help us quiet the fears and calm the storm.
Venting helps us release the pressure. Venting is talking about or releasing, unleashing, our feelings. Venting regularly, before the pressure builds, is one way we can avoid the explosion and the ensuing regret. The swirling subsides when we regularly and intentionally let out the fears and frustrations and prevent the pressure from building. Finding the right ventee is key.
Journaling helps us process and release uncomfortable emotions. Journaling thoughts and exploring them with curiosity and objectivity is a form of venting and can be quite therapeutic. Writing offers a release and reprieve from the swirling sensations. Keeping a journal will enable us to process the complexities of caregiving, the emotions, the fear, and the confusion. When you lean into the overwhelm of caregiving, face the scary feelings, and force them to take off their mask, the fear behind the thought is revealed, it is less scary. In addition to processing our thoughts and emotions, journaling helps us problem-solve and work through disagreements with others. The raw self-reflection and self-awareness can be healing.
Forgiving frees our hearts and minds and helps us release resentment. When we forgive ourselves, family members, systems, and our care recipient, we free up our mind space for more positive and productive thoughts. Resentment is disempowering. Spending an enormous amount of time and energy on anger and resentment is possible.
The problem with resentment is that it eats away at us from the inside and keeps our focus on grudges and grievances. When we forgive, we are not condoning what has occurred but are no longer defined by the wrongs committed. We can acknowledge and feel the pain, accept what has happened, and decide to let the resentment and the pain go. Our hearts feel lighter when we no longer carry the burden of anxiety and negative emotions.
Planning helps ease anxiety and release worries. Planning for the worries addresses another source of negative thoughts and emotions that can build unmanageable levels. Caregiver worries are real. These worries can cloud our thinking and cause us to feel powerless and overwhelmed. Worrying about the what-ifs can cause overwhelming stress.
Caregiving intensity increases over time, and when a crisis arrives, it can feel like we are drowning. If we don’t have a plan and haven’t identified the resources we might need, we are searching for help underwater.
Having a plan reduces worry. We can stop fretting when we make a plan, often a plan A, B, and C. The research will lead to resources, and the answers will lead us to more questions until we fill in the vastness of the what-if with a strategy. We can set the worry aside and focus on the present. We feel prepared and empowered. Your power to release worries lies in the plan.
Caregiving is sustainable when we use strategies that help us care for ourselves while we care for our family members for as long as needed. Our caregiving journey is like being in a raft on a river. The river has calm sections, obstacles, rapids, and a few waterfalls. At times, we feel like we’ve been tossed out of the raft and we are drowning. When we employ certain strategies to protect our well-being and manage the emotions and stress, the river doesn’t change, but how we navigate the river changes.
We step into the flow. More information on the 12 Sustainable Caregiving Strategies are available at SustainableCaregiving.com and in my book, Navigating the Caregiver River: A Journey to Sustainable Caregiving.
Caregiving can feel overwhelming at times. But, it is crucial to reap the benefits of your available resources.
Caregiver supporters suggest tips for caregivers to decrease the stress in their lives and help them communicate with other caregivers in similar situations. They share thoughts on handling different situations and assist with everyday caregiving.
Our expert, Theresa, suggests that support will help caregivers become smarter and recommit themselves to the role of a caregiver for those you need.
We hope you found this expert Q&A as insightful as we did and had something to take away from it.
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