What is the role of a caregiver?

Caregivers work hard to enable their loved ones to live as independently as possible and with the highest possible quality of life. But studies show that caregivers who don't look after themselves are at high risk for burnout, depression, physical illnesses, abusive behavior, loss of friends, and strained family relations. Being an effective caregiver involves learning strategies for planning and problem-solving — and for taking care of yourself.

What can I do to be a more effective caregiver?

Planning and problem solving are important skills for a caregiver. Being organized on a daily basis and being ready to handle unexpected situations will reduce stress and help you care for your loved one. The following are some tips for preparing yourself for the challenges of caregiving:

Planning tips

  • Plan your days by assigning priorities and realistic goals for what you want to accomplish. Make a list of what needs to be done, and do the most important things first.
  • Identify friends, neighbors, and other relatives who are willing and able to help you. Find out what types of support they are willing to provide, and when they are available.
  • Arrange your day to take full advantage of any available help from friends, neighbors, outside agencies, etc. Develop a schedule to be sure your loved one's needs are covered 24 hours a day, if needed.
  • Pace yourself. Don't work yourself to the point of exhaustion. This can affect your ability to be an effective caregiver—and could pose a threat to your health.
  • Set limits and stick to them. Learn to say "no," even to your loved one.
  • Caregivers are important members of the healthcare team. Develop a partnership with your loved one's healthcare providers, and get involved in developing any short- and long-term care plans.

Problem-solving tips

Caregiving involves solving problems. This is not a new skill; you have been solving problems throughout your life. The difference now is that many of the problems affecting your loved one come with advanced age or a chronic illness and may be new to you. The following are some problem-solving tips:

  • Identify and discuss any problems that currently exist. Find out what local resources are available to help you.
  • Develop a strategy or long-term plan if your loved one's condition changes or gets worse. Consider any potential problems and what services may be needed. Be prepared to act and/or make the necessary changes.
  • Have the telephone numbers of your loved one's doctors, as well as those of emergency services, where they can easily be located in an emergency. One suggestion is to preprogram these numbers into your phone or tape them on the telephone receiver.
  • Follow these steps for solving problems as they occur: Identify and understand the problem, generate potential solutions, examine and evaluate the potential solutions to see which might work best, try the solution and evaluate the results.

Why is it important for me to take care of myself?

Caring for an ill or elderly loved one requires tremendous amounts of physical, mental, and emotional energy. Sometimes the pressure of caregiving can lead to stress and a condition called caregiver burnout.

Stress can be caused by anything that requires you to adjust to a change in your environment. Your body reacts to these changes with physical, mental and emotional responses. When it persists, stress can affect the body's immune system, and illnesses can result.

Caregiver burnout can occur when caregivers don't get the help they need, or if they try to do more than they are able—physically or financially. Caregivers who are "burned out" may experience fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression. Many caregivers also experience feelings of guilt if they spend time on themselves rather than on their ill or elderly loved ones.

More tips for caregivers:

  • Work in partnership with others — including members of the healthcare team and the person who is ill — to solve problems.
  • Have a positive attitude toward caregiving.
  • Take care of yourself and stay healthy.
  • Known your own limits and don't try to do more in one day than you are capable of doing.
  • Realize you cannot do everything by yourself and accept help when it's offered.
  • Reach out for support.
  • Keep a spiritual focus.
  • Seek healing, humor, and courage.
  • Work and communicate effectively with the patient.
  • Support the patient's spiritual concerns.
  • Help to resolve the patient's unfinished business such as legal issues.
  • Work with health professionals.
  • Work with family and friends.
  • Take care of your own needs and feelings.
  • Be realistic in your expectations for the patient's health and progress.
  • Be realistic in your expectations about yourself and your caregiving.
  • Ask for help before you feel overwhelmed.

Six steps to successful caregiving

  • Give yourself a break!
  • Take a crash course in the disease.
  • Seek family assistance.
  • Implement financial and legal planning.
  • Join a support group.
  • Take advantage of community resources.