Help for the Helpers: Ideas for the Self-Care of Caregivers

iStock | Extended
December 5, 2016 | The Hospice Insider

A key component of a formal social work education is the development of a self-care routine. Self-care is the ongoing process of prioritizing personal needs to ensure that a caregiver remains healthy enough to meet the needs of the people in their care. While it is a simple idea, an effective self-care routine it can be deceptively difficult to implement, as is evidenced by the high rates of burn out and associated emotional problems in the social work profession.

For non-professional caregivers such as the friends and family of individuals receiving hospice services, self-care is even more important. Providing care to a loved one at the end of their life is one of the most emotionally challenging tasks any of us will ever undertake, and it is frequently accompanied by many other major stressors including interfamilial conflict, financial strain, the demands of a maintaining a job, and the constant challenges of attending to everyday tasks around the house.

The common analogy for self-care is that of using oxygen masks during an in-flight emergency. Flight attendants and safety literature clearly and repeatedly instructs passengers to secure their own air supply before attempting to help others. In the same way, helpers need to ensure that they have a steady “air supply” of their own so that they can be as supportive as possible to the people that depend on them.

Everyone has different self-care needs, but all complete self-care routines include some attention to every dimensions of health: the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual. Adequate self-care is a moving target, meaning that needs can change from day to day. Therefore, a successful routine requires constant self-assessment and the creativity to adapt to changing needs, schedules, and abilities.

Biological, or physical, needs include a nutritious diet and adequate sleep and exercise. It is obviously very difficult to care for others if you are physically unwell, and saving some time and energy to attend to your own physical needs is very important. Constant fatigue, changes in weight or appetite, or physical aches and pains are just a few signs that you’re not adequately attending to your physical well-being. Physicians, dietitians, personal trainers, massage therapists, and chiropractors can all be good resources for making sure that physical needs are met.

Providing end of life care to a loved one is extremely psychologically taxing for a number of reasons. It is common to feel stressed, anxious, or depressed during this stressful time, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it. Many people find that it is helpful to see a clinical therapist to help with these symptoms. A good therapist can be a major support throughout the entire end-of-life process and can help ensure that caregivers maintain their own mental health through a very stressful time.

A caregiver’s social supports are also important to attend to. Caring for someone at home can be an extremely isolating experience and may require missing important social events. At the same time, friends and family can be a major source of support. Frequently, these people want to be helpful but are unsure of how to best be of service, and it is important to be proactive in creating opportunities for people to be supportive. This may require directly asking for help or simply making time for dinner plans or other outings. Social media can be a helpful tool for eliciting social support, but often this element of self care simply requires making sure that there’s time to participate in important social functions and being open about your needs to your friends and community members.

Accompanying a loved one at the end of life can be a very spiritually rewarding experience, but may also be very taxing. Everyone has different spiritual needs, and this a time when it is especially important to honor personal beliefs and spiritual practices, both of the caregiver and the person being cared for. Even if these beliefs differ, it is usually possible for everyone’s spiritual needs to be honored. However, this can be a delicate subject that requires very direct and open conversations. Personal counselors or members of the clergy can be very helpful in planning in advance to ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

Remember that as a caregiver it is ok to ask for help. It is important to have a respite provider for times when you are unavailable to care for your loved one for any reason. Also, remember that as a caregiver, you are not alone and that by reaching out to your family, friends, neighbors, and your hospice social worker you can create an amazing network of support for yourself as well as the person in your care. By taking care of yourself, you can create the best possible experience for everyone.

About the Author

Sam Ore
Samuel Ore, MSW, is a clinical social worker based out of Missoula, MT. Please share any questions or comments with him at