7. Get out of the house.
I know what it’s like to be captive inside your home, to be a prisoner locked in a dark and frightening cell. It will drive you straight to the community room of a psych ward. At least that’s where my isolation period ended up. When my kids were babies, I didn’t do anything but nurse, change diapers, watch Baby Einstein videos, and clean up squash stains on every piece of clothing I owned.
Today I make myself sign up for swim clubs and community programs even if I don’t want to, because I know that the time spent outside of the home with other human beings is as crucial to my mental health as eating the right foods and exercising and getting support.
Taking time to enjoy a pastime isn’t a selfish act. It will help you be a better caregiver because it will elevate your mood — not to mention assisting you with concentration and patience — which will in turn help your loved one.
If you take away just one piece of instruction from my article, let it be this: get good sleep.
Why? Sleep disruption leads to insanity.
Seriously. In his book, “The Depression Cure,” Stephen Ilardi, Ph.D. writes:
When laboratory rats are experimentally deprived of slow-wave sleep [a deep, restful form of slumber] for several days at a time, their brains start to malfunction and they become seriously ill. Humans react in much the same way. After just a few nights of slow-wave deprivation, most people report intense, aching fatigue. After a few more days, they begin to feel physically ill. They also start moving and speaking more slowly. Many people even complain of a sensation of physical pain (even though they can’t quite tell where it’s coming from). In this sleep-altered state, mood turns despondent, social interest disappears, thoughts turn negative, appetite becomes erratic, and concentration wanes. In other words, with the disappearance of slow-wave sleep, the core symptoms of depression quickly emerge.
9. Reduce your expectations.
In her book “Ready to Heal,” author Kelly McDaniel describes the process of grieving relationships and how much energy it uses up. If you think about it, caretakers are constantly grieving. With every errand or task, they are reminded of their loss: of how an illness robbed them of good times with their loved one. And they yearn for that old life back.
Factor in all of this grieving, and it’s no wonder why caregivers feel so exhausted and overwhelmed and tired. McDaniel writes:
The energy it takes to endure withdrawal [from a relationship] is equivalent to working a fulltime job. Truthfully, this may be the hardest work you’ve ever done. In addition to support from people who understand your undertaking, you must keep the rest of your life simple. You need rest and solitude.
10. Solicit help.
Here’s where you have to get creative. Especially if you’re a stage-four people pleaser like me. You have to imagine that you are desperate (because you are) and that your good health depends on getting some outside help: preferably free, from the family members who are too busy living their lives (guilt-ridden, you hope).
Don’t wait until you come down with shingles or pneumonia or chronic fatigue. By then you have missed your window of opportunity. Start when you have a little energy, so that you can brainstorm about some inventive ways you can barter for a little assistance. If no one from your family volunteers, inquire with the National Center on Caregiving, or the National Family Caregiver Support Program for some different home heathcare assistance programs, Meals on Wheels, visiting nurses, or adult daycare programs.
11. Postpone important decisions.
Psychologists advise persons who have just lost a loved one to not make any important decisions for a year. The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that depressed caregivers live by the same guideline: hold off of running away with your cable guy is somehow going to make this caregiving situation disappear, or leaving your wife because she’s not at all empathetic to your circumstances, or deciding that going into real estate is what will make you happy until you’re feeling a tad more stable and peachy.
12. Talk about it.
It doesn’t matter how you get support, but you’re going to need some. You could join a support group for caregivers. Ask your doctor for referrals or contact organizations such as the National Center on Caregiving, the National Family Caregiver Support Program, or the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org).
Or you could build a small network of people you know who are going through the same thing you are. The mere act of spilling your guts to a friend is going to do your mood some good. New research from the University of Michigan has established the link between spikes in progesterone and social bonding. Says lead author Stephanie Brown:
“Many of the hormones involved in bonding and helping behavior lead to reductions in stress and anxiety in both humans and other animals. Now we see that higher levels of progesterone may be part of the underlying physiological basis for these effects.”
Yeah! More evidence that gabbing pays high dividends for one’s health, so talk all your want and cry too.