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Getting Support: The Challenges Caregivers Face and How to Overcome Them

by: Kathi Koll on

The sixth in our nine-part guide for new caregivers.


When people becomes parents for the first time, they encounter a new world with demands and stresses and joys that they never anticipated.

Becoming a caregiver is a bit the same way. There may be a stronger closeness and love that develops, but there will also be stresses that are unexpected and require new skills to handle. Just like new parents, who may want to provide the sole care for their children, caregivers often have a hard time enlisting others in the tasks required to care for loved ones.

The reasons are varied. Sometimes it's simply that it's hard to ask for help, or perhaps a caregiver may not know who to ask. However, sometimes a caregiver may worry that if others provide care, it won't be done in a preferred way.

“Many times caregivers are reluctant to let someone come in because 'They aren't going to do it like I do it,'” said Donna Benton, the director of the USC Family Caregiver Support Center. “That's true, but if they can keep them safe while you get a break, then you can let go.” She noted without a caregiver getting respite, care will inevitably suffer, “and you're not going to be presenting yourself as loving as you want to be. You want to be giving quality care and not just giving care. You want that love to be there, and not just duty.”

An additional challenge can be the patient. An ailing loved one, especially if dementia is part of the picture, may have trouble being cared for by anyone other than the primary caregiver.

Such loved ones “may never want someone in the house, so the caregivers can become very isolated and stressed, which can lead to actual depression,” said Donna Benton, the director of the USC Family Caregiver Support Center. “If you don't take a break, you're not going to be there in the long run, which is what everyone wants to be. Caregivers worry about what happens if I'm not there for a short time and leave the care to someone else. If you don't take care of yourself, you're almost ensuring that you won't be there in the long run. It's important to set up back-up help for yourself.”

So how do you go about taking steps to make sure your loved one is safe while you take a break to get vital respite? Here are some tips to help make caregiving less stressful and healthier for you in the long run:

1) Brainstorm for Back Up

Since back-up help is absolutely necessary, begin to brainstorm some options. Consider family, friends, local senior centers, hospitals, churches, temples and online services, such as USC's Caregiver Support Center's Care Journey, which connects you with a family consultant to help personally address your family's specific challenges. There are people out there who would love to help, but you have to search for them and ask for what you need. Remember back up and a support network are essential, so keep endeavoring to develop them.

2) Give It Time and Be Flexible

Finding the back-up help you and your loved one require will take some time and might come in many forms. You may need paid help, and it may take time to train or get your loved one accustomed to an aide. Some respite may come in a different form, such as through Meals on Wheels stopping by with food and some conversation. The local public transit system may also provide door-to-door service for doctor's appointments, but keep looking for people who can come into your home for a bit, so you can get respite and take care of yourself in whatever way works best for you. Remember that something could happen where you couldn't be there for your loved one, so it's essential to develop back up.

3) Respite Comes in Many Sizes

Respite doesn't have to mean a day off or a vacation. It can also be found in small doses throughout the day. Take time to really relax and enjoy each meal. Pause for a moment and look out the window while taking ten deep breaths to re-energize yourself. Try to maintain a positive attitude, while also practicing relaxation. Do yoga for 15 minutes, listen to some favorite music, walk around the block or watch a television show. “Do something that gives you a sense of calm and relaxation,” Benton said. “Respite can be in your head. Put on your to-do list things that are calming for you.”

4) Enroll in a Free Caregiver Class

Ways to find respite and generally reduce caregiver stress can also be developed through government-sponsored classes. Your tax dollars have already paid for the classes, which are freely offered throughout the country and even online via places like USC's Caregiver Support Center. These classes have a specific curriculum to help caregivers build new skills over a 6-8 week period through homework, stress-busting tips and other powerful tools. Such skills are essential to maintaining good health while caregiving. Contact your local Department of Aging or visit the Family Caregiver Alliance website to learn more.

5) Find a Support Group

“Support groups are critical,” Benton said. “They pull you out of your isolation and connect you with people who are in the same position that you are.” You may need to attend a new group a few times to find out whether it's the right fit, and don't be afraid to try different groups. It generally takes several tries to find the right support group for each person, so don't give up. Some support groups can be found through foundations connected to the disease from which your loved ones suffers, and some even have a separate group that the loved one can attend. People can even form their own support groups as each care situation is unique.

As you find your way, remember that you are important and deserve care. Also keep in mind that by providing support for yourself, you are also making yourself a better caregiver as well as helping to ensure that your loved one has healthy support no matter what.