Caring for the carer


Caring for a loved one who is terminally ill takes an emotional and physical toll. Remember that you can only give what you have got and if you're running on empty you won't have much to offer which is why it's so important to also take care of YOU!

There are a number of warning signs for caregiver stress which affects you both mentally and physically, explains Professor Michael C Herbst, a health specialist at CANSA. Keep a look out for the following:

  • Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried.
  • Feeling tired most of the time.
  • Sleeping too much or too little.
  • Gaining or losing a lot of weight.
  • Becoming easily irritated.
  • Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Having frequent headaches, body pain or other physical problems.

In addition there are a number of emotions that you may be experiencing:

  • Anger - with yourself, your family or even the cancer patient you're caring for. Sometimes anger is associated with fear, panic, worry, resentment etc.
  • Grief - mourning the loss of your loved one's health and the life you had together before the cancer diagnosis.
  • Guilt - for a whole range of reasons including not doing or helping enough or that you are healthy.
  • Anxiety, depression and hopelessness - about how you are coping which may be exacerbated by the impact of your loved one's illness on your family, as well as financially.
  • Loneliness - feeling all alone in your role even with others around you which could also be due to the limited time you have for socializing and previous routines.

Focus on self-care

"It's essential for you to prioritize your own health so you can better care for your loved one", says Professor Herbst, "So you should always inform your doctor about being a caregiver and discuss the presence of any of these symptoms. Counseling will help you to deal with depression and other emotions, and will empower you to take back control of your health and other aspects of your life. It's important to be kind to yourself, to give yourself permission to feel the way that you do, to mourn your losses and to work through any feelings of anger, loneliness, anxiety or guilt".

There are many other ways to prevent or manage caregiver stress, adds Professor Herbst. These include:

  • Eating healthily and exercising regularly: While neither of these is easy to do when you're a fulltime caregiver, careful planning can ensure that you eat nutritious meals, and that you manage to grab 20 minutes for a brisk walk each day to help increase your energy levels, reduce your stress and alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Getting enough sleep: even though this may not always be possible, setting a goal for how much sleep you want to get each day will help with fatigue in the long run. Try napping whenever your patient is sleeping and chat to your doctor if you struggle to fall or stay asleep
  • Making time to unwind by slotting in de-stressing techniques throughout your day. Try closing your eyes for 5 or 10 minutes, meditating, listening to relaxing music, reading a book, taking a short walk around the house or calling a friend for a quick chat
  • Asking for help – even though you may find it hard to leave your loved one in someone else's care, taking time out is one of the best things you can do for yourself as well as your patient. Taking advantage of available help and support will enable you to reenergize by getting out and doing something 'normal'.
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