Relax; You’re Normal!
The sheer exhaustion experienced by a dementia caregiver is hard to quantify. There’s physical exhaustion based on the fact that most of your day is spent actively working to provide the care your loved one needs; this includes dispensing meds, helping them in and out of bed and/or chairs, assisting in the bathroom, preparing meals, daily grooming…the list goes on and on. Every day.
There’s also the mental exhaustion every caregiver lives with, and this encompasses a range of issues. Emotionally, you get worn down as you see the increase of health issues in your loved one. While it’s devastating to watch a loved one go down through any sort of health problem, there’s an added level of grief when the issue involves dementia. Realizing that your loved one doesn’t remember you anymore, and you can’t do anything to “improve” that—well, it’s sort of like death by a thousand cuts because it hurts over and over.
And as you come to grips with the fact that your loved one will never get better, it’s like a fresh heartache settles in for what can be a brutally long journey to the end.
Tears may flow frequently or not at all. You may experience everything from anger to depression to an almost dead calm. You may feel completely empty or utterly overwhelmed. You may eat for comfort, or you may have no appetite at all.
How can all of this be true? Is this normal?
In a word, YES! Any of this—or all of it—is completely normal. Every person will experience the stress of caregiving in their own unique way. No two caregiving journeys have ever been alike. What’s important is to recognize your feelings about what you’re going through. It is imperative that you know you’re not weird or strange because you don’t feel about your caregiving journey the way someone else feels about theirs. The question is: how are you going to cope with your own caregiving situation?
It’s important to note that your care journey may be different than someone else’s, but there are a few common anchors that can hold people steady as they navigate the job. The most successful caregivers are those whose thoughts involve deliberate planning.
Be Deliberate About Getting Rest
It is so easy to look at the ever-growing list of caregiver responsibilities and find yourself staying up late into the night trying to get it all done. This never goes anywhere good. In my new caregiving course, Everything I Wish I Had Known: Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s or Other Dementia, I reference several studies in the self-care chapter that show how sleep-deprived people, when tested in a driving simulator, perform as badly (or even worse than) people who are intoxicated[i]. There’s no way that can be beneficial for the caregiver or the care recipient; proper rest is a must.
Be Deliberate About Taking Time Off
Also cited in my course is an article from Forbes which details a study about people in the workforce and their need for vacation. The study, conducted by the World Health Organization, found direct links between long working hours put in by employees and fatal health conditions. The study concluded that “taking vacation time is essential to employee survival…because time off from work is integral to well-being, sustained productivity and high performance[ii].” You need to realize that your caregiving duties are exactly like the work performed by a company employee—and you need time away from your job (just like a company employee does) in order to remain healthy and effective.
Be Deliberate About Doing Things You Enjoy
Do you enjoy reading? If you do, then you’re ahead of the game! I mentioned in my course that studies show it only takes six minutes of reading to lower your stress levels; as a matter of fact, research has found there is a 68 percent reduction in stress after engaging in reading fiction[iii]. Even if reading isn’t your thing, find what you do enjoy and make time for that activity. It may be tinkering with a car, restoring furniture, baking—any number of things that can be a fun diversion for you. And afterwards, you’ll return to your caregiving duties refreshed, and you may even have a smile on your face which will make your care recipient feel good, too.
Do not let yourself become so heavily weighed down with your caregiving duties that you lose sight of why you’re doing the job in the first place. Get your rest and take your breaks; when you do, everybody wins.
[i] Sleep Physician at American Sleep Association Reviewers and Writers, Board-certified sleep M.D. physicians, scientists, editors and writers for ASA, “What Is Sleep and Why Is It Important?” American Sleep Association, accessed March 2022, sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/what-is-sleep/
[ii] Caroline Castrillion, “Why Taking Vacation Time Could Save Your Life,” Forbes, May 23, 2021, forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2021/05/23/why-taking-vacation-timecould-save-your-life/?sh=44dd020324
[iii] “Reading Fiction for Stress Relief,” De-Stress Monday, Grace Communications Foundation, March 31, 2020, mondaycampaigns.org/destress-monday/reading-fiction-stressrelief