Columnist Joelle McKiernan says it’s important for caregivers to take care of themselves in order to fulfill their roles. (Natalia Balcerzak/Terrace Standard)

COLUMN | Caregivers: Your Health Matters

Wellness Matters columnist Joelle McKiernan says taking time for caregivers is also important

By Joelle McKiernan

There are many caregivers all around us. Some people take care of others as part of a job or profession – social workers (March is Social Worker month), nurses, teachers, first responders, support workers, and even customer service employees. Others take care of others out of a sense of love and/or duty, family and friends. Many caregivers enjoy caring for others – it is part of their nature.

No matter where and who you are, whether at home or in the workplace, caring for others is a cornerstone value of our society. There can be a downside to caregiving that is not talked about enough or is addressed too late.

This is when the caregiver does not take the time and attention to care for themselves. Caregiver burnout is a medically diagnosed condition that needs treatment. If ignored, it can be life-threatening.

According to WebMD, caregiver burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. It may be accompanied by a change in attitude, from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.

The good news is burnout does not happen overnight. If acknowledged and addressed early enough, it can be prevented. However, if left unchecked it becomes progressively worse.

READ MORE: COLUMN | New year, new you: Make those changes stick

If you are or know a caregiver, here are several red flags that indicate you or they may need some help. To conserve energy, a caregiver may withdrawal from friends and family and activities that they previously enjoyed. Their emotions may start to feel out of control and can show up as feeling sad/depressed, irritable, and hopeless.

They may experience a change in appetite, weight, and sleep patterns and start showing signs of emotional and physical exhaustion. As a way of coping, caregivers may start to overuse stimulants such as coffee or other forms of caffeine. Also to avoid their symptoms they can increase the use of alcohol, prescription pain killers, sleep medications, etc,.

When I talk to other helping professionals and social work students, I remind them (and myself) that we can cause harm unintentionally to others if we are not taking care of themselves. This is true of any caregiver.

When you listen to the safety talk on an airplane, it directs you to put your own mask on first. Why? Because you cannot help anyone if you are passed out. You can not help other people if you are unwell in any area of your health: physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.

Here are some things you can do or suggest to the caregiver in your family to help prevent burnout.

1. Accept your feelings. Being frustrated or angry about your situation or the person for whom you are caring is normal. It does not mean you are a bad person or a bad caregiver. It means you are human with limits like the rest of us. Your responsibility is to express those feelings in healthy ways that does not hurt anyone. (Next month, I will talk about healthy, emotional expression).

2. Find someone you trust that will to talk with you about your feelings or frustrations and will not judge you. It can be a friend, co-worker, neighbour, or a professional (such as a therapist, a counselor, your doctor, the clergy, or a mental health professional).

3. Put yourself on your priority list. Don’t allow the thought “I’m too busy to take care of myself” to win. Set aside time for yourself, even if it’s just an hour a week. Book an appointment with yourself and don’t change it unless there is an emergency. Remember, taking care of yourself is a necessity in being an effective caregiver.

4. Ask your yourself, what do I have control over? This can help set realistic goals and expectations, accept that you may need help, and allow others to help. Admitting you need help doesn’t make you weak. It shows you are taking responsibility for the care you are giving and not able to give. Knowing your limits is taking ownership of your personal situation.

5. Laughter is great medicine, have a fun activity planned every week and again don’t cancel or reschedule. Also, an attitude of gratitude and being positive can help shift your perspective and help you see the world and your situation differently.

6. And finally (maybe the most important one) stay consistent with your own personal daily health habits by eating right, drinking water, and getting plenty of exercise and sleep.

We are grateful for our caregivers and need them in our communities.

And for everyone else this month, take the time to thank and acknowledge the caregivers – family, friends, or professionals that cross your path.

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