Who Takes Care of the Caretaker?

Years ago I conducted workshops and seminars to physicians at the Boston University School of Medicine. The well-attended meetings were about “Who Takes Care of the Physician?” This subject continues to warrant attention, however I’ve come to realize that nurses, aides, home health care providers and our reliable family members, also need to be cared for. They too need tools for their own self-care during these stressful times.

Handholding shadows
Handholding shadows

Of course the primary focus is on the sick or post-operative patient, but little attention is paid to the family members that are in the trenches day in and day out with their loved ones. The responsibilities thrust upon the spouses and children can be not only overwhelming, but disorienting and exhausting.

Effects on Family Members

  • Fear of the unknown; fear that the family member may never be the same
  • Guilt over whether there might have been something you could have done to prevent your family member’s diagnosis
  • Helplessness; feeling that there is nothing you can do to really make a difference
  • Anxiety over whether the recovery will be sound and complete as possible
  • Depression over family member’s inability to live her life the way she used to before the diagnosis
  • Frustration about one’s own sleep deprivation, lack of control of one’s own time, and the litany of demands needed on the part of the patient – and shame with feeling the need to take care of the self when needed by the impaired loved one

Ways For Family Members to Manage Successfully while Care Taking:

  • Know that recovery involves a partnership of the patient and caretaker.
  • Share your feelings of frustration with a friend, loved one or, if appropriate, the person you are caring for.
  • Share your positive feelings too, as in reminding the patient that you love him and are willing to do all that you can to help him.
  • Get an education. This will help you be more patient, compassionate, and understanding. It will also prepare you for any physical or psychological changes your family member may have to endure.
  • If you are not the primary caretaker make your visits short, positive and upbeat.
  • Keeping in touch with friends and other family members enables you to get the moral and emotional support needed.
  • Make time for yourself. Build in the coverage you need so that you can take breaks to rejuvenate and care for your own physical and psychological needs. Lose the guilt.  The timeout will make you a more effective and loving caretaker.

When have you had to be a caretaker? What psychological impact did the role have on you?

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