Did you know that as a young person, you are especially susceptible to high levels of stress when serving as a caregiver? Navigating your own life, starting a family, developing a career and a variety of other responsibilities can impact your ability to provide care for another person. There are many helpful strategies as you approach this new role that may help to ease the burden and prevent or manage caregiver burnout.
Define your role as caregiver:
Identify your role and responsibilities. Are you serving as a primary caregiver or a casual friend/acquaintance? These two types of roles are equally important. Your responsibilities can be flexible, so give yourself permission to modify as circumstances change.
Set guidelines and limits. How much and how often are you willing to give? Create a workable schedule and give yourself a day off or a “vacation” from caregiving. Define your non-negotiables (i.e. not moving in with the patient to provide care, or not taking time off work).
Consider alternate options for caregiving. Who else can provide practical and/or emotional support? What respite care is available (e.g., home health aide, visiting nurse)?
Prioritize responsibilities. What is most important to the patient? To you?
Getting acquainted with your new role:
Read literature. Know what types of literature are best for you. Do you prefer concrete medical information or literature that is more emotionally supportive?
Find your role in the medical context. Consider decisions about becoming a healthcare proxy or a power of attorney. Understand the legal impact of these roles and discuss with the patient early on. Will you attend appointments?
Talk to healthcare professionals. Let doctors and the entire health care team know who you are, what your role is and how they can reach you. Hospital social workers or patient navigators can be helpful advocates for you and the patient. Ask questions regarding what to expect throughout the process, both physically and emotionally.
Understanding your relationship with the patient:
Acknowledge differences between the caregiver and the person with cancer. These differences are to be expected and it is normal to disagree. Reflect on what your relationship was like before cancer. A diagnosis does not necessarily change someone’s personality or your relationship, so it is important to manage your expectations. Cancer can intensify problems that were there before. Plan to seek support to help sort through what issues are cancer-related and what issues are not. Ask, don’t assume, how you can be there for them–communication is essential.
Helping other people “get it” and managing expectations. Inform others about your role as caregiver and ask for help. Let them know how this change is impacting you and how they can help meet your needs. Re-telling the same story can be exhausting. Simplify by sending a mass e-mail or utilizing resources like www.mycancercircle.org. Some people are good at practical tasks while others can offer emotional support–explore the abilities of others versus your expectations of them.
Finding “me” time. Maintain commitments and activities that pre-dated your caregiving responsibilities. Create and maximize alone time (e.g., take walks, practice breathing exercises) and take care of yourself (get recommended sleep, spend time with loved ones, seek counseling).
Finding what works for you. Remember that there is no right way to be a caregiver. Allow for a trial and error period and make sure to give yourself a break as soon as you need it.
Author: Carly Mesavitz, LMSW, Oncology Social Worker, CancerCare