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Published on March 14, 2016

Caregivers: It’s okay to be selfishCaregivers: It’s okay to be selfish

If you’re one of the nation’s nearly 45 million Americans over age 65, you might think that getting the blues or feeling stressed out are normal parts of aging. And if you’re caring for someone at home or if a loved one has died—well, your personal wellbeing is certainly nothing to fuss over, right?

Wrong, say experts from the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) of Cape Cod. Kathy Hallman, a social worker, and Rick Bickford, a bereavement counselor, work with many seniors whose “go-it-alone” attitude jeopardizes their mental health and safety.

“Don’t be afraid to seek help,” advised Hallman.

The demands on caregivers

Approximately 7.6 million people over age 65 are assisting ill or disabled seniors, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association raised concerns for caregivers who spend more than 28 hours per week specifically coordinating healthcare and managing medications for family members. These individuals were twice as likely to experience difficulties related to their own physical health, emotional wellbeing or finances than caregivers providing no help with healthcare.

“Certainly, caregiver stress is real and prevalent,” said Hallman. “We see more and more people coming home [from the hospital] who are sicker and have greater needs, which puts increased expectations on caregivers.”

The telltale signs of caregiver stress are:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability and anger
  • Isolation
  • General signs of feeling unwell, such as chest pain or a weakened immune system.

“I think if we listen to our bodies, they’ll let us know when something is wrong mentally or physically,” said Hallman. “Seniors, when they’re being caregivers, tend to ignore that.”

Healthy versus unhealthy grief

Bickford runs the VNA’s hospice program and offers support to family members for one year after a loved one has died. Some take him up on help during the first six months; others need it later.

“Early grief is very acute with a tremendous amount of emotional stress,” he explained. Later grief might come with feelings of emptiness, as people try to unsuccessfully maintain their routine.

While grief is a natural process and two to three years is not a long time to be actively reconciling a loss, there’s a difference between deep sadness and something more serious, Bickford said.

“Unhealthy grief is what healthy grief looks like in the early stages, but it becomes chronic,” he explained. It also can lead to depression, marked by self-blame, anger and feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.

The dangers of going it alone

Overwhelmed caregivers and people suffering a loss who do not seek help run these risks:

  • For caregivers: making errors or falling behind with loved ones’ medications and treatment plans. The results can be missed medical appointments or preventable re-hospitalizations, according to Hallman.
  • Isolation: particularly for people living on the Cape. Isolation can lead to more doctor and emergency-room visits.
  • Compromised safety: Bickford has seen instances of falls, cooking accidents, refusal to eat, and abuse of prescription drugs or other substances.
  • Loss of identity: Long-time spouses often have clearly defined responsibilities and activities, which becomes confusing when one is gone or can no longer keep up.

 What to do if you need help

You might think no one could care for your spouse as well as you, or it’s nonsense to draw attention to yourself after someone has died. On the contrary, say Hallman and Bickford, it’s worth turning to the experts:

  • Healthcare providers. Your doctor is the best person to advise on your physical health and mental wellbeing. For help at home, the VNA’s nurses, home health aides and counselors can lend a hand or a sympathetic ear.
  • Support groups. The VNA and Cape Cod Healthcare run groups for caregivers, people suffering a loss, and people affected by conditions like dementia, stroke and Parkinson’s disease. The bereavement groups are run in Falmouth and Sandwich. “Being with others who are going through the same experiences is invaluable,” said Bickford. Call the VNA at 508-957-7400 for more information.
  • Adult day health centers. The VNA runs programs for seniors and disabled adults in East Harwich and Sandwich. Patients receive healthcare monitoring and recreational activity, while caregivers get a much needed break.
  • Your friends and family. If you tend to keep troubles to yourself, your loved ones might not realize how badly you’re feeling. It’s okay to open up.

What to do if your loved one needs a hand

If you’re worried your mother, father or dear friend has reached the limit, “come from the heart and share what your genuine concerns are for their health and safety,” Hallman advised. Other tips:

  • Don’t push it. The efforts of a well-meaning but overbearing child can be counterproductive. For people recently widowed, “the pain they’re going through is the most powerful connection they still have [to their spouse]. They’re reluctant to let go of that pain. They need people to recognize this need to go through the paces in their own way.”
  • Don’t disappear, either. Some caregivers or grieving individuals might insist they are fine or lash out angrily when loved ones express concern. If your drop-in visit or phone call with mom or dad ends badly, don’t take it personally.
  • Contact your loved one’s doctor. Physicians are barred from discussing patient records, but they can receive information, according to Hallman. If you have something to share about a loved one’s health or home life, send a short note or leave a message at the office.

“Sometimes the doctor can be the best advocate and get things done because seniors respect their opinions,” she said.