by Thalia Anderen, LCSW
A recent client of mine sought counseling to examine some of the negative emotions she was experiencing while caring for her husband, who was struggling with multiple medical issues. She described how she used to be active in the community, had a full social life and loved to travel. Yet, ever since her husband became ill, her life had changed dramatically. While she was initially able to remain somewhat socially active, one time her husband had a medical emergency while she was out to lunch with friends and, from that point forward, she became fearful of leaving the house at all, even for just a few minutes to go to the grocery store. Over time, she became more isolated, lonely and, at times, resentful.
Unfortunately, this story has become all too common. It is estimated that more than 120 million American adults are either currently providing unpaid care to a loved one or have done so in the past. As people are living longer, there is a corresponding need for more caregiving services. Often times, these responsibilities fall to family members, and while caring for a loved one can be fulfilling in many ways, it can also lead to exhaustion, depression, isolation and burnout.
Caregivers can become so isolated in their daily routines that it’s easy to become disconnected from friends, from hobbies and from their communities in general. Many caregivers report losing track of friends altogether as it becomes more and more difficult to find time to talk or to accept invitations to get together. The longer a loved one’s illness lingers on, the more isolated a caregiver can feel. In this regard, it is not uncommon for caregivers to be guided by their guilt and fear when thinking about leaving their loved one alone. Even when caregivers are able to socialize or re-engage their hobbies and activities, they are often too tired to follow through and find it is easier to just remain at home.
However, not only can isolation lead to depression, it can also take a toll on one’s physical health as well. In 2012, University of Chicago’s social psychologist John Cacioppo found that prolonged isolation can trigger increased hardening of the arteries, increased hypertension, inflammation of the body, and decreased immune functioning. Therefore, it is crucial that caregivers care for themselves, as well as their loved ones, by avoiding the dangers of isolation.
While caregivers commonly feel alone in their struggles, there are several ways to combat isolation and loneliness:
Reach out to the community
Contact resources related to your loved one’s health situation. For example, if your loved one is suffering from dementia, reach out to a dementia support group. Many national organizations and websites provide contact numbers and addresses for their local chapters. If possible and appropriate, enroll your loved one in an Adult Day Care program. This will help your loved one avoid isolation as well, and most of the time transportation is offered.
Contact community organizations that provide respite care
Knowledge is power! Caregivers often feel isolated because they aren’t aware of the resources available to them. Local senior centers, elder-care associations, social services and even religious institutions offer a variety of services. There are even programs where volunteers come to your house to stay with your loved one so you can take a little time for yourself. Call your local info-line to get contact information on services like home health aides, meals on wheels, and in-home companions. Your loved one’s insurance will likely subsidize some of these services, but always double-check insurance provisions before you make any arrangements.
Find an online forum or support group
There are many resources on the internet that contain blogs, chat rooms and online support groups for caregivers. While this is not meant to replace face-to-face interactions, 24-hour online forums and support groups do offer companionship and guidance from people in similar situations.
Join a local support group
Many hospitals, foundations, religious institutions and mental health centers offer free or low-cost support groups where you can meet other people facing the rigors of caring for a loved on. If there are no such groups available where you live, start your own support network!
Make time to stay connected to friends and family
Even a short email or phone call can help you feel less alone. Set up time for a coffee break or lunch date. If leaving the home is difficult, invite friends over whenever possible.
Set boundaries and don’t be afraid to ask for help
It’s okay to say no to certain requests, especially if there are others who can help. Delegate responsibilities wherever possible and create a “care team.” Many times caregivers feel they should be able to handle all the responsibilities on their own, so they feel guilty about asking for help. But others will not know to offer help if you never ask. Don’t be afraid to be honest about your own needs and limitations.
And, most important of all, take care of YOU!
Just because you’re caring for someone else doesn’t mean you should neglect yourself. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy and staying physically active can lead to improved physical and emotional health. Make time to do something you enjoy every day. Flight attendants tell us to put on our own oxygen masks before we try to help others in need. That’s a perfect analogy here. Taking care of yourself physically and mentally first and foremost will help you to have the strength to care for someone else.
Thalia Anderen, LCSW, is the Clinical Supervisor at Family Centers/The Center For Hope, a private, non-profit organization offering education and human services to children, adults and families living in Lower Fairfield County, CT.
The photo was taken by Sharon Sayre.