Caregivers are often regarded with awe. Warm, compassionate and patient, they offer valuable support to people needing assistance and their family. Because the role is both physically taxing and psychologically demanding, self-care for caregivers is essential in order to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout.
October is Mental Health Awareness month in South Africa. With that in mind, LITTLE EDEN offers suggestions to those who are caring for family members or others who are elderly or disabled.
Self-care is not the same as selfishness
If you are the primary caregiver, you might feel lonely and isolated. You could experience a range of symptoms from sleep deprivation and fatigue to frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and anxiety. Often these feelings are mixed with guilt. You may secretly wish you could escape from the person you’re caring for, if you have little or no support. To have some time just to yourself, instead of always having to put their needs first. This can make you feel that you are being selfish. Or that others would judge you harshly if they knew how you really feel. But it’s not selfish to put your own needs first.
There’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” You have to look after yourself in order to be able to take care of others. If you are experiencing any symptoms which lead to a lack of energy, joy and enthusiasm, you might not be able to bring these needs to the persons in your care.
Caring for the Carers
At LITTLE EDEN, we’ve been providing a Caring for the Carers programme for a number of years. Recently, it has become even more important. Many carers in general are showing symptoms of burnout as a result of the pandemic, lockdown restrictions and the effects of the worsening South African economy on family members.
We strive to support our carers and restore balance through 45 minutes of ‘time out’ every week, coupled with an activity such as music, relaxation or stretching. Music has the power to calm and relax, as well as to cheer us up. These mood enhancing effects can last for hours, enabling carers to perform their task with renewed energy and playfulness. They find rejuvenation in the space the Caring for the Carers session provides. During these time-out sessions employees are encouraged to relax and take a break from their thoughts. Relaxing activities during these sessions also help forge a feeling of companionship with fellow employees.
Self-care in your own situation
Different people react differently to stress. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to self-care for caregivers. It’s important to be aware of your own triggers for burnout, and to develop coping strategies to deal with feelings when they arise.
Taking time out just for yourself is one of the most important things you can do to prevent burnout. All through the day (or night) try to take several short ‘mini’ breaks to enjoy a cup of coffee, listen to some music, flip through a magazine, meditate, or fill out a Sudoku puzzle. Plan longer breaks during the week – a few hours off – to take a brisk walk, go for a workout at the gym, enjoy a bubble bath, read a good book, or pursue a hobby or activity that you enjoy. You may also need to invest time and energy in nurturing other relationships. Otherwise your spouse, children, relatives or friends may feel they are being overlooked.
Whether it’s ten minutes or two hours, use your time out to stop, breathe and focus on your needs and feelings. It’s not selfish. It’s self-preservation! If the person you care for cannot be left alone, or when you need several days or even weeks off to go away on holiday or recover from an illness, organise the services of a trained carer through a company such as Care Champ or SA Home Care.
We tend to believe that no one else will care for our loved one as well as we would. But the truth is, without time off to renew and restore ourselves, we can’t provide the best care either. Even if you never use these services, it’s a good idea to investigate them. So that, in an emergency, you will know who to call for help.
Get the right training
Especially if you are new to the role of caregiver, you may worry about the techniques you’re using for tasks such as helping your loved one to the toilet, brushing their teeth for them or how best to support them in a bath or shower. You may also need ideas on how to keep them occupied with an appropriate level of activity. Specialised training in the care of a child or adult with disabilities helps give you confidence, as well as tips that can make the task easier. Care practitioners training is available through a number of organisations that provide care for the elderly and those with disabilities. You can also find a wealth of information online.
Join a group
‘A problem shared is a problem halved,’ they say. Find a support-group where you can connect with others doing similar work to share stories, exchange ideas, and get practical help and advice. It’s incredibly valuable to be able to interact with others who understand the challenges because they’ve ‘been there, done that’. It’s also an opportunity to let your hair down and enjoy some light-hearted moments. You may even see the funny side of experiences that seemed like the end of the world at that moment in time.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask for help.
If you are struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression, seek professional counselling, or contact a 24-hour helpline such as the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Many carers are turning to mindfulness training to help them focus on mental health aspects. Or you may find meditation helpful.
Give yourself a pat on the back
Remind yourself that you are doing the best job you can in that moment in time. What you are doing is important and helpful. Hang up motivational posters or keep and read complimentary comments you’ve received from others to remind you how well you are doing. Realising that you are helping to make someone else’s life better is rewarding and improves your sense of self-worth.
“The work is hard, arduous but the reward that God one day will give us will be great according to the work achieved.” ‘Diary’ by Maria (‘Domitilla’) Rota (Unpublished): 19 January 1967.
You may find that caring for someone affected with severe disabilities contributes to a greater appreciation of your own life and blessings. You may also find that, despite his or her disabilities, the person you care for is able to give you something in return … a smile … that gives you a huge sense of satisfaction, and underscores the value of what you are doing. To make a difference in someone’s life is the greatest gift of all. As caregivers, we need to be able to be proud of ourselves.