According to the latest research from the Pew Research Center
, there are more than 40 million Americans currently engaged in some kind of caregiver role. These caregivers come from many different walks of life, spanning every possible age and economic bracket, and may be spouses, domestic partners, parents or grown children, or may even be close friends or neighbors. Caregivers perform a critical role in the care of cancer patients, because many treatments, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy, are delivered on an outpatient basis. This wide range of responsibilities may include helping patients with some basic functions, including feeding, getting dressed and bathing, practical issues including scheduling appointments and providing transportation, managing insurance and finances, or keeping the house clean and in good repair.
Balancing these newfound caregiver responsibilities
can be especially challenging, particularly as caregivers try to find ways to balance their own needs, and/or the needs of their children, with the needs of the person who is sick. Typically, caregivers receive no training for their new role and additional responsibilities, and the range of emotions that result can feel difficult to navigate.
While providing care for a loved one can be rewarding, the responsibility also comes with a host of new challenges. Many caregivers are forced to turn down new opportunities at work, cut back on hours in order to provide more time at home for caregiving, or may feel pressured to opt out of social engagements, to skip time for personal hobbies or enrichment and to give up on their own personal needs and time. As feelings of anger, guilt, sadness, pain and loss begin to emerge, many caregivers don’t know what to do with these new feelings, and they may evolve into feelings of resentment toward the patient, their cancer care team and even toward themselves.
It’s important to understand that feelings of resentment are completely normal and appropriate. In your new role as caregiver, it’s common to feel overwhelmed by your new responsibilities, and you may question your ability to keep up with the needs of your own life. You may feel trapped by your loved one’s dependence on you for their physical and emotional well-being, as well as by what lies ahead, including the physical responsibilities and the emotional challenges. These feelings of hopelessness and anxiety may be made worse by the changing nature of your relationship to your loved one; for example, a daughter caring for a mother with cancer may have fewer of the typical mother/daughter interactions she is used to, and may find the relationship roles suddenly reversed.
Remember why you took on the responsibilities of being a caretaker in the first place.
Caregivers take on the challenges of the role for many different reasons
; some become caregivers because they are in love, feel an obligation toward a family member or simply because it “feels like the right thing to do.” These are all healthy motivations. However, if you’ve become a caregiver because you feel pressured to do so, or because you feel like you’re the only person willing to take on these new responsibilities, you are at increased risk for feelings of frustration and resentment. Remember to set physical and emotional boundaries, and to ask for help from others when you need to; this can be as simple as assigning some tasks to other family members, or recruiting outside help from a home health aide or medical professional. Defining these boundaries early in the caregiver relationship will help you to see how your responsibilities can be shared, or help you to identify the point at which someone else needs to step into the role of primary caregiver.
Take time to care for yourself.
Remember that in order to care for the needs of someone else, you need to also tend to your own needs. While a major health crisis like cancer may feel overwhelming and like there’s no time left for yourself, caregivers need to carve out time for self-care, even as they are managing the care of someone else. Learn to identify the symptoms of depression
early, and find ways to decrease stress and anxiety including:
- Maintaining a nutritive, healthy diet, limiting the use of alcohol or tobacco, and keeping up with a regular exercise routine
- Freeing time in your schedule for social engagements with family and friends, such as a cup of coffee to catch up with trusted friends, or group activities including book clubs and dinner parties
- Keeping up with hobbies or activities that are just for you to unwind, relax, learn new things and do the things that you enjoy
Know when to ask for help.
You are the one who gets to decide whether or not to be a caregiver, but it’s too big a job to tackle by yourself. After all, your patient depends on you for so much, and so you too must allow yourself to depend on the support and care of your other friends and family. Seek support from your local caregiver’s support group
, ask for spiritual advice from trusted religious leaders, or take time to practice relaxation techniques such as meditation or deep breathing. Knowing how and when to ask for the help you need will help reduce stress, ease your burden, make feelings of resentment less frequent and help you provide the best possible care for your patient.