The term family caregiver or caregiver has become common in our culture over the last decade. A caregiver is anyone who provides physical, emotional, spiritual, financial or logistical support to a loved one with a chronic, disabling or life-threatening illness.
Many people in this situation do not immediately identify with the term “caregiver.” You may not believe that it fits you, especially if you feel that you’re “just doing what I’m supposed to do.” You may even believe that drawing attention to your own needs will somehow detract from the efforts to help your loved one, but being a caregiver is an important role to recognize. It allows you to be an active participant and essential team member in the fight against your friend or loved one’s cancer.
Tips for Caregivers
Cancer affects not only the person diagnosed, but all those who care about that person. The following ten tips are intended to help you tackle the challenges of caring for someone with cancer.
- Find YOUR support system. When a friend or loved one is diagnosed with cancer, it’s an emotional time. Roles and expectations may change (or you may wonder if they are going to change). Sometimes it’s difficult to talk with your loved one about your feelings, because you both have so much going on. Many find one of the best ways to cope with stress, uncertainty and loneliness is to talk to others who share similar experiences. You can learn from personal experiences how to be effective in your new role as a caregiver. There are many organizations across the U.S. offering free support groups and educational programs for patients and caregivers either face to face, online or over the phone. Community-based organizations, doctor’s offices and hospitals are great places to seek referrals. Only you can determine what type of support works best for you.
- Gather information. There is truth to the phrase, “knowledge is power.” There’s no way to completely grasp the ups and downs of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, but being armed with knowledge may help you accommodate your loved one’s needs and put you at ease by knowing what to expect. Learning more about the course of cancer, its stages, recommended treatments and side effects will help you feel more in control.
- Recognize a new normal. Patients and caregivers alike report feeling a loss of control after a cancer diagnosis. Many caregivers are asked for advice about medical decisions or managing family finances or need to take on new day-to-day chores. It’s likely that your tasks as a caregiver will create new routines. Maintaining a balance between your loved one’s disease and the daily activities of your own life can be a challenge. It may be helpful to identify the parts of your life that you can still control—such as your own health and relationships. In doing this, you will be able to create a strategy for integrating new routines with old ones. It may also help to acknowledge that your home life, finances and friendships may change for a period of time. Sometimes the laundry might not get done, or maybe takeout will replace home cooking. Try to manage each day’s priority as it comes—it’s alright to put other tasks on hold.
- Relieve your mind, recharge your body. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the tasks of caregiving. Time spent recharging your mind and body will allow you to avoid depression or burnout. Research shows the person you’re caring for benefits most when you are healthy and your life is balanced. Mini-breaks are an easy way to replenish your energy and lower your stress. Try simple activities like taking a walk around the block or closing your eyes for 10 minutes in a comfortable chair.
- Take comfort in others. Caregiving can sometimes take a great deal of time. Many caregivers feel a loss of personal time over the course of their loved one’s illness. Keep in mind that while you’re taking on new and additional responsibilities, you’re still allowed a life of your own. Many seasoned caregivers advise that you continue to be involved with your circle of friends and family. For some, remaining involved might mean playing an active role in school or community activities. For others, it may mean weekly visits with a best friend. Only you can determine the level of involvement that is right for you, and that level may change over time. No matter your choice, it is certain that you will appreciate having someone to turn to as you care for your loved one.
- Plan for the future. A common feeling among caregivers and people with cancer is uncertainty. It’s hard to know what the future holds. While planning may be difficult, it can help. Try to schedule fun activities on days when your loved one is not feeling the side effects of treatment. You can also give yourselves something to look forward to by planning together how you will celebrate the end of treatment, or a portion of treatment. Planning for a future in the long-term is also important and can be increasingly stressful for a caregiver when sometimes, two futures are being planned—one based on survival and the other based on the possibility of losing your loved one. All of us, whether we have been diagnosed with cancer or not, should have in place necessary paperwork such as healthcare agent, power of attorney and a will. You can ask your loved one if they need or want assistance—it’s in everyone’s best interest to begin this process sooner rather than later.
- Accept a helping hand. You may find that learning to let go and to say “YES!” will ease your anxiety and lift your spirits. People often want to chip in, but aren’t quite sure what type of assistance you need. It’s helpful to keep a list of all caregiving tasks, small to large. That way, when someone asks how to help, you’re able to offer them specific choices.
- Be mindful of YOUR health. In order to be strong for your loved one, you need to take care of yourself. It’s easy to lose sight of your own health when you’re focused on your loved one. But if your own health is in jeopardy, who will take care of your loved one? Be sure to tend to any physical ailments of your own that arise—this includes scheduling regular checkups and screenings.
- Consider exploring stress-management techniques. Even if you’ve never practiced mind-body exercises before, you may find that meditation, yoga, listening to music or simply breathing deeply can help relieve stress. Research shows these practices can enhance the immune system, as well as the mind’s ability to influence bodily function and relieve symptoms. Mind-body (or stress-reduction) interventions use a variety of techniques to help you relax mentally and physically. If this interests you, seek out guidance or instruction to help you become your own expert on entering into a peaceful, rejuvenated state.
- Do what you can, admit what you can’t. Even seasoned caregivers find themselves caught up in the whirlwind of appointments, daily errands and medicine doses. No one can do everything—acknowledge your limits. Come to terms with feeling overwhelmed and resolve to be firm when deciding what you can and cannot handle on your own.