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Let’s Talk About Caregiver Stress — And 6 Ways to Avoid Burnout

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With 47 million family caregivers in the United States, the experience of helping an aging or ill loved one is nearly universal. Here we have compassionate, real-world advice to improve this often daunting task.

1. To avoid burnout: Say “no” this way.

“Caregivers by nature want to help everyone,” says Linda Abbit, author of The Conscious Caregiver ($9.27, Amazon). Yet to stay sane, you may have to decline others’ outside requests. “Practice saying the following sentence when you’re asked to do something you don’t have time or energy for: ‘I really would like to, but I’m not in a position to do that right now.’” This shows your big heart while pointing out your time restraints.

Abbit notes, “You’re a human being trying to do what is often a superhuman job. You can do anything, but not everything.” Also smart: To discreetly alert strangers (like store clerks) to your situation, consider carrying a “companion card” like the ones used by FamilyMeans that reads: ‘My companion is living with a form of dementia. Please show us patience today. Thank you for your support.’”

2. To bring on calm: Use your senses.

More than 40 percent of caregivers consider their role to be “highly stressful,” according to the National Council on Aging. To quiet her anxiety, Abbit made a point to tune into her senses. She focused on the sound of her father’s chuckles or the beautiful softness of her mother’s hands even in advanced age. “Being present in a moment of caregiving can help you see the beauty in the experience and help you notice things you might ordinarily miss if you’re in a hurry,” she explains. “By pushing the pause button, you immediately create a space of calmness. Just five minutes a day is a good starting point. And once you see the results — feeling more relaxed and positive — you’ll want to continue.”

3. To tackle tough topics: Follow a script.

“Have conversations early, when there is still time,” suggests Abbit, who had to guess what her mother wanted after she lost her ability to speak during the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. To make these difficult conversations easier, Abbit recommends using a helpful Q&A template called the “What Matters Most” letter, available from the  Stanford Medical Letter Project. It gives prompts such as: What future milestones are you looking forward to? How is bad news handled in your family? What medical interventions would you allow at the end of life?

4. Use hospice’s family services.

“Unfortunately, people often don’t take advantage of all that hospice offers,” says Abbit. What most caregivers don’t know: “While a hospice care team is patient-centered, care services extend to the patient’s immediate family, even up to a year after your loved one’s death.” You can use it to tap into education, support, and grief groups. 

5. Give yourself a break.

To find nearby offerings and deals specially for caregivers, type “age-friendly” and the name of your town into an internet search engine. One example: Healing Touch Spa in Rochester, Minnesota, offers 15 percent discounts to Mayo Clinic patients and caregivers. 

6. Connect with a coach.

“There are professionals who specialize in coaching caregivers, helping them maintain their own balance and well-being as they manage their caregiving roles,” reveals Beth Wiggins, director of Caregiving & Aging at FamilyMeans. To find a “caregiver consultant” in your area, use the Eldercare Locator.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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