How To Cope as a Caregiver
You probably didn’t see it coming and had no way to prepare, but here you are—someone you love has received a diagnosis that rocks your world. Your role has shifted; life has changed. You are the caregiver, the one responsible for maintaining daily physical needs and navigating the heavy emotional peaks and valleys of a cancer diagnosis that is not your own.
Caregiving is a high honor and a harrowing journey of leaning into love you didn’t know existed to summon strength and learn to balance two lives well. Burnout comes easily because caregiving can take a toll, both emotionally and physically. When you’re focused on tending to the needs of someone you love, you tend to brush aside your own needs, so it is important to be mindful and know how to cope as a caregiver.
Nataliya Melnyk, MD, is a medical oncologist at Beebe Healthcare. In her role at the Tunnell Cancer Center she regularly interacts with patients and caregivers. She has some tips on reducing caregiver burnout and learning to lean into love.
Caregiving is stressful. Your emotions are intense and varying. You may feel pressure, guilt, resentment, anger, worry, loneliness, and grief. Dr. Melnyk says this is normal.
“You are not failing as a caregiver because you feel overwhelmed. But knowing how to manage stress and emotions is key to avoiding burnout,” Dr. Melnyk said. She recommends tips from Llardo and Rothman—the “Caregiver’s STOP Sign.”
S = Seek out opportunities for support. Expand your social circle—real and virtual. Find a support group with other caregivers.
T = Take time for the things you enjoy. It may not look the same, but make time for things you enjoy. Maintaining your own identity is too important to neglect. So listen to music, watch a movie, read, write. Don’t give up who you are.
O = Opt for help whenever you can. Learn to say yes to help that is offered to you.
P = Prioritize your needs. Since you can’t do everything you’d like to do, you need to choose what’s most important to you. If exercise means more to you than meeting a friend for coffee, then forget the coffee and go exercise.
As a caregiver, you are so focused on the needs of your loved one that you tend to neglect your own health, but taking care of yourself can actually make you stronger and happier, giving you the boost you need to take care of those who need you. Here are some things to keep in mind to stay on top of your health:
- Nutrition—It may seem easiest to grab fast food or to skip meals altogether, but don’t make this a habit. A regular healthy diet with fruits, vegetables, and protein is key to keeping up your energy.
- Exercise—Being active for 30 minutes can help you maintain stamina. Easy tasks such as household chores and gardening can get you moving. If your care recipient is able, go for a walk or include them in something active when possible.
- Rest—Practicing good sleeping habits (6-8 hours each night) will help with emotional and physical health. Learn a few breathing techniques to wind down at the end of each night and help release the stress of the day.
- Keep up with your own doctor’s appointments, medications and screenings—Don’t neglect your own health needs. Stay on track with your medication regimens and appointments to stay healthy.
“Bad days are inevitable because life is unpredictable, especially when caring for a loved one with cancer,” Dr. Melnyk said. “By knowing your limits, asking for help, and being proactive to stay emotionally and physically well, you will cut down on the bad days.”
Seek out a safe circle of friends, spiritual leaders, counselors, or support groups where you can be yourself and vent if needed. Just having the freedom to speak honestly about how you feel and what you need can make the overwhelming situations seem more manageable. Lean into the love others offer you and acknowledge the gift you’re giving through this incredible act of love and service.
Join a support group or gather a group of friends for a regular book club or social hour. Being with others helps ease your burden and allows you to be a better caregiver. Find out about all of Beebe’s Support Groups on our calendar page.
Llardo, J. & Rothman, C. R. (1999). I’ll Take Care of You: A Practical Guide for Family Caregivers. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, CA.