WHEN someone you love falls sick, there are typically two reactions — take charge of the situation and bring some sort of order to the household. Or hand the situation over to someone so that they can organise the resources, and family.
It is usually in such instances that the primary caregiver emerges. Sometimes it is the most unlikely person in the family, the quietest or the most distant. Typically, however, it is the person who is most dependable and organised.
Being a caregiver can be a novel experience for some. As the main caregiver, you have control and influence over other people’s time and schedule, particularly of the one who is in your care. Some see this as a relished position.
Suddenly people listen to what you have to say. They refer and defer to your decisions. You’ll find that people arrange or re-arrange their schedules based on your advice. Others, however, may take on this role as a heavy mantle of responsibility.
Whatever the details, if the situation is dire, chaos threatens the once serene setting of your home and routine. More often than not, a caregiver may find himself or herself in this role for many years with recurrent hospital admissions, possible surgeries and long-term treatments in addition to home nursing and care.
When people visit the person in your care, they often only ask about the patient. Most caregivers are rarely asked how they are doing. Even if they were, the automatic response would be, “I am fine, thank you,” said with a bright, false smile.
Unless a person has been a caregiver, they would find it hard to empathise, let alone understand your pain and frustrations. Besides, it would be awkward for the caregiver to reveal every painful detail, for example, of putting up with difficult behaviour, not having a moment to themselves, being taken for granted and blamed, just to name some.
Conversely, the “I’m fine, thank you” mentality is so ingrained in many caregivers that they forget to ask themselves how they are doing, until exhaustion gets the better of them.
In my previous articles, I kept saying don’t be shy to ask for help. This is easier said than done. Telling a caregiver “if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be well enough to take care of the person in your charge” is as unhelpful as it is true.
So how can you help the caregiver? How can they help themselves?
In the long run, exhaustion will set in and you may just suffer from burnout.
Common signs of burnout are:
• Tiredness. You don’t sleep well because you are worried about the person in your charge. This often leads to feeling that you’re perpetually unwell. Your sniffles can’t seem to go away. You think it’s a cold but you know it’s not. It is an indication that your immune system is not well because stress can wreak havoc on your health.
• Unusual hunger. You start developing abnormal eating patterns and cravings, usually for something sweet.
• Isolation. You don’t feel like socialising or interacting with people, not even your family and close friends. This could be a sign that what you’re doing is draining you.
• Loss of interest. When you no longer find your hobbies as well as people and things around you interesting, you probably need a break from being a caregiver.
• Resentment. You start to have negative or violent thoughts about the person in your care or even towards yourself, followed by feelings of guilt for even thinking them. You should immediately seek help if you feel this way.
The thing now is to learn how to do so. Next, if you have been a caregiver for many years, you need to occasionally take a step back and see if you are suffering from burnout. The trick is to find out what works best for you to make you feel good.
If you need a reprieve, even if only for a few hours a day, find out if there is a place you could send your loved one to. Community and support groups can help you in such instances.
The key here is to be able to honestly identify your needs and the fact that you can’t do it all alone. In truth, no one who really cares about you expects you to. Once you’ve figured this out, you must remember to ask for it.Juneita Johari NST Sunday Life and Times 16 December 2012