Caring for the Caregiver
Are you, like me, currently taking care of a parent, partner, or other adult? Do you find it a joy, but also exhausting? This caregiving reminds me of the time when my daughter was a baby and it seemed next to impossible to maintain my own self-care. With 25% of Canadians over the age of 15 in a caregiver role, there are 7.8 million of us in this situation!
We may have become a family caregiver after an older adult had a traumatic event, such as a stroke or fall. Although the focus of this article will be on the caregiver of an older adult, many of the ideas also apply to caregivers of younger adults. We may be looking after someone in their home or ours, or we may be an essential caregiver for someone living in an institution. While many people find caregiving to be a positive experience, caregiver burnout lurks around the corner to trap the unwary.
There are many challenges to family caregiving, particularly during the current pandemic. The average senior has two or more chronic conditions, meaning that there may be multiple physical and psychological issues to look after. The resources that families caring for a senior at home depended on before the pandemic, such as adult day programs or respite care, may be closed. Hiring support privately may not be available or affordable for the average family.,  Although provinces have mandated aging in place as a priority, funding for home care is woefully underfunded, and even people with high needs may only receive a couple of hours of medical care per week.
The challenge in maintaining our self-care while looking after a senior happens over time. A caregiver may be able to manage one night of poor sleep after waking several times to help a loved one; however, repeated nights of poor sleep will start impacting the caregiver’s health. The need for 24-hour supervision of an older person may present a challenge to a caregiver who wonders: “How can I risk leaving this person alone, even for a little while, to shop for groceries or to go for a walk?”
Many of us also have jobs, homes of our own, and families to look after. Trying to juggle priorities and deciding where to focus our attention to the exclusion of other elements in our lives, including our own self-care, is hard. With all our responsibilities to consider, often, the first thing to disappear is our self-care. Coffee dates are cancelled, and the exercise, laundry, or overdue haircut we meant to do are put off for another day.
Caregiver burnout can happen when too much is expected of us, and we feel we can’t meet those expectations. The signs and symptoms can be insidious and can include the following list, which is taken from the Canadian Psychological Society’s Fact Sheet on Caregiver Stress:
- Depression, anxiety, and/or irritability
- Trouble concentrating
- Disturbed sleep
- Feeling exhausted despite adequate rest
- A weakened immune system
- Loss of interest in personal needs, desires, and pastimes
- Increased feeling of resentment towards the care recipient and/or family/friends
- Loss in satisfaction of being a caregiver
- Feeling helpless, hopeless, and isolated
Can we avoid burnout as caregivers, or if it is too late, can we halt it now and start feeling better? The answer is a resounding yes! Through my personal experience and years of coaching other caregivers of seniors, I have found several critical steps to maintaining your health through the caregiving journey.
Share Your Feelings and Your Needs
Choose a group (more in the resources below), a friend, a family member, or a professional to unload to. Taking care of a family member can bring up all kinds of feelings, considering your history with that person. You need to talk about those feelings. If you absolutely can’t find anyone to talk to, then start a journal.
Be Sure You Sleep Well
If you can afford home care, arrange it for nighttime, especially if your loved one wakes frequently. If you can’t afford help during the night, be sure you nap during the day. It’s not an ideal way to get your rest, since you will have phone calls, medical appointments, and other obligations interrupting your sleep, but it will help.
Eat Well and Hydrate
What does this look like? Eat protein foods 3–4 times a day. Choose whole grains rather than refined. Prioritize healthy fats such as nuts and avocados. Eat as many vegetables and fruits as you can squeeze into the day. Drink lots of water. If you are finding that the time to shop and cook is a challenge, consider using a meal service. Nutritional supplementation can also help.
Please check with your health-care practitioner before beginning any new supplementation program. A good probiotic will aid in helping your gut produce the neurotransmitters you need to boost your mood. Essential fatty acids will help reduce the aches and pains in your body. A multivitamin will give you some basic nutrient levels as added insurance on those days you just can’t manage to eat all you need.
Move Your Body
Move frequently through the day by getting up and standing, stretching, and walking around the room. While you are making tea, do some squats or push-ups against the wall. When the weather is good, take walks; perhaps the person you take care of would enjoy going with you!
Nourish Your Spirit
What fills you with joy and awe? Look for areas outside of caregiving. Consider joining spiritual practices, doing art, volunteering, and spending time in nature. Activities like these will help you feel more centred, bring back the joy of caregiving, and help you to feel less stressed.
Here are some resources that can help support you as a caregiver to recognize, prevent, and address burnout:
- Senior Care at Home—This is a free group I host on Facebook. Anyone caring for their senior loved one at home is welcome to join: facebook.com/groups/938000489975541
- A free guidebook about dementia from McGill University: mcgill.ca/medsimcentre/community-outreach/dementia/dementia-your-companion-guide
- Canadian Alzheimer’s Society tips for looking after the caregiver: alzheimer.ca/en/help-support/im-caring-person-living-dementia/looking-after-yourself/reducing-caregiver-stress
Wendy Presant, RHNC, CFMP
With a background in nursing, naturopathic, and functional medicine, Wendy Presant is currently registered as a health-and-nutrition counselor. She provides virtual coaching services to individuals looking to optimize their health.
 Arriagada, P. “The experiences and needs of older caregivers in Canada.” Insights on Canadian Society, November 2020, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 75-006-X. Available at https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2020001/article/00007-eng.htm
 Canadian Psychological Association. “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Caregiver Stress. 2020-12-31. Available at https://cpa.ca/psychology-works-fact-sheet-caregiver-stress/
 McMaster Health Forum. Improving care and support for unpaid caregivers in Ontario. 2014-11-08. Available at https://www.mcmasterforum.org/docs/default-source/Product-Documents/citizen-briefs/support-for-unpaid-caregivers-in-ontario-cb.pdf?sfvrsn=2
 Casey, L. “‘A crisis for home care’: Droves of workers leave for hospitals, nursing homes.” CBC News, 2021-10-31. Available at https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ont-home-care-1.6232042
 Bayshore Health Care. How do I pay for home care? 2019-03-04. Available at bayshore.ca/resources/how-do-i-pay-for-home-care/
 Cision. Absence of home care funding in 2021 budget means less care at home for seniors, more hallway care: Home Care Ontario. 2021-03-24. Available at https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/absence-of-home-care-funding-in-2021-budget-means-less-care-at-home-for-seniors-more-hallway-healthcare-home-care-ontario-871414861.html
 Sleep On It Canada. Why sleep? 2019. Available at https://sleeponitcanada.ca/all-about-sleep/why-sleep/
 Canadian Psychological Association. “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet.
 Robertson, R. “The gut-brain connection: How it works and the role of nutrition.” Healthline, 2020-08-20. Available at https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/gut-brain-connection
 Robertson, “The gut-brain connection.”