Tips for self-care from Sister Kathy Weber, CSC
It is a unique burden, some would say a blessing, to provide long-term care for a loved one who is ill or aging. Whether burden or blessing or a bit of both, the tendency to give all of oneself in caring for another too often results in self-neglect.
It’s no wonder. According to a survey by the AARP, caregiver emotions can range from joy to despair. Although positive emotions far outweigh the negative, over half said they are stressed and many are overwhelmed.
Exacerbating the issue is that an aging population is caring for an aging population. In the U.S., of the 53 million unpaid caregivers, 79 percent are caring for someone over the age of 50—typically an aging parent. That translates to one in six Americans who are now responsible for at least one aging adult over 50. Yet the average age of caregivers is 50.1, a time of life when many are still working and dealing with their own health concerns. As the country approaches 2026, when the first of the baby boomers turn 80, the role of caregiving will be borne by a steadily growing number of people.
Still, even with all the challenges, 90 percent of caregivers surveyed said that providing care to someone they love is worthwhile.
Lending support to caregivers
Sister Kathy Weber, CSC, has seen caregiver burnout time and again. For more than three decades, she has been conducting caregiver support groups each week through the Adult Medical Day Center of Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland. She has seen the detrimental effects of burnout on those who try to do it all and do it alone.
In her groups, caregivers meet face to face and heart to heart. Participants talk about their concerns and struggles and worries. When burdens are shared, they are lightened. Other group members offer suggestions or just convey kindness to soothe a troubled spirit. Sister Kathy moderates the group and gives witness to the journeys of those who attend.
Finding a support group
Sister Kathy earnestly hopes that caregivers learn the value of caring for themselves. She suggests checking with your local hospital or council on aging to find a support group where you live. If the only option is virtual, take advantage of it. Whether in person or virtual, the opportunity to speak with and hear from other caregivers is invaluable. Sister Kathy knows this firsthand.
When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March 2020, the support groups ground to a halt. Mandatory quarantines and social distancing changed everything. Meeting “screen to screen” instead of face to face wasn’t ideal, but it was the best they could do to keep the groups going. Some participants dropped out, not being able to adjust to the virtual format, but most stayed with it—and actually liked it. They no longer had the hassles of traffic, the challenges in leaving their loved one, and the time and expense in even a short journey.
Perhaps best of all, they found themselves opening up to a much wider group — geographically, that is. As group members told others about the virtual format, Sister Kathy found herself hosting people from Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and even Spain and Italy. “The virtual format has given us a much bigger outreach,” she happily notes. “I think they realized that when it comes to touching heart to heart, there really is no distance at all.”
The Caregiver’s Prayer
Compassionate and healing God, help us to see your face in the faces of our sisters and brothers who are sick or injured.
Guide us to reach out to them with hearts of compassion and hands which serve their needs.
When they are anxious, help us to know how to reassure them.
When they feel alone, help us to notice and be present.
When they feel confused, help us to listen and assist in finding answers to their concerns.
When they need comfort, help us to communicate care and understanding.
When they are weak or discouraged, help us find ways to refresh their spirits.
When doubt or darkness touches them, give your Light to guide them and lift them up.
Help us as caregivers to always turn to You as the source of our own strength and compassion as we seek to serve the needs of our sisters and brothers who are vulnerable.
Source: Catholic Health Association
So how do you avoid caregiver burnout?
Here are Sister Kathy’s 10 best tips — gleaned from 30 years of experience — on caring for yourself while caring for others.
- Realize that self-care is the most important part of caregiving. “You can’t pour from an empty glass,” Sister Kathy and her support group participants are fond of saying.
- Take good care of yourself. Eat healthy. Stay hydrated. Strive for a good night’s sleep. Stretch your muscles. Take deep breaths. Pray.
- Use respite care to give yourself a break. It’s okay to let someone else spend time with your loved one. That person may not do everything exactly like you, but that’s alright. You need a break whether you realize it or not.
- Have some fun to avoid feeling isolated. Call and text friends. Make plans for a fun outing so you have something to look forward to. Stay social.
- Do not feel guilty. Guilt gets you nowhere. It zaps your strength. If guilt weighs heavy on you, find a trusted person to talk to. Try to nurture an attitude of gratitude for God’s blessings in your life.
- Recognize when you feel angry or frustrated. Anger and frustration are normal in trying situations. Remember that the problem isn’t how you feel, it’s what you do with those feelings. Share them, when possible, with someone who will understand.
- Keep your sense of humor. Humor can sometimes be found in the most unexpected places. Give yourself permission to laugh and smile. Lean on Job 8:21: “He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.”
- Avoid arguing with your care recipient because you will not win. It can be tempting to try to make your loved one see your point of view, but often the pains in doing so are not worth any potential gains.
- Take one day at a time, one moment at a time. This is Sister Kathy’s most earnest piece of advice. Do not live into the future, not even the near future. Pray and trust that God walks with you. Walk by faith, not by sight. Let whatever you do today be enough.
- Seek out a caregiver support group and start going. A support group will connect you with others who are walking the same path, giving you support when you find yourself worn to the edge, and rejoicing with you over happy times.
How to Show Appreciation to a Caregiver
Say it—let the caregiver hear you speak of your appreciation.
Offer to help around the house or yard.
Deliver a homemade meal.
Lend an ear and a shoulder.
Invite to outings.
Provide respite care.
Speak up if you see signs of burnout.
Offer advice only if asked.
Send a note, letter, flowers, card, care basket, spa gift certificate … use your imagination!
Source: Northwestern Medicine