“Being a caregiver is easy,” said no one, ever.
Whether you work for a health care agency, a hospital, or care for a loved one at home, being a caregiver is incredibly draining work. You are expected to give all you can to help someone get through another day. The hours are long, the work is difficult, and many times efforts go unrecognized. It is no wonder that caregiver burnout is high, and caregivers often suffer from depression, sleep deprivation, and broken spirits.
Caregivers themselves need care and counseling; that much is certain. And yet, so often this care is not requested, or deemed unnecessary. Early in my career as a parish pastor, I could not understand the exhaustion felt by members of my congregation who were health care workers. Like many, I assumed that they would have all the support and resources necessary to engage in their professions. It was only after I left the parish to become a chaplain that I learned just how much those in the helping and healing professions are strained by their work.
For many caregivers, to ask for help is to admit weakness. Feeling overwhelmed is evidence of a lack of ability or proper training. Our egos often prevent us from recognizing our own needs, and when we do realize that we are suffering, we beat ourselves up rather than look upon ourselves with compassion.
This is especially true if one is a caregiver for a family member at home. Whether a caregiver is tending to a child with special needs or to an elderly parent, others often assume that the caregiver has everything in order and under control. When this is not the case, when the caregiver is overwhelmed by the needs of that family member, he or she may suffer alone. The fear of being judged often keeps caregivers from voicing concerns, stating needs, or asking others for help.
Chaplains, pastors and clergy are slowly being educated on the need for supporting and counseling caregivers, as are some health care agencies and hospitals. Unfortunately, though, there is still a long way to go to ensure that caregivers remain healthy and have all the support they need. In the meantime, those suffering under the weight of their responsibilities are left to find their own resources. In that spirit, I offer the following:
Build a Support Network
Build a support network of individuals who understand what you are going through. This list could include friends, clergy, co-workers, or a support group of professionals in your field.
Practice self-care, and understand that it is not a sign of weakness. Self-care can take the form of any number of stress-reducing activities, from exercise to art to weekend trips away from caregiving responsibilities.
Create and Maintain Healthy Boundaries
If you are a professional caregiver, try not to become too emotionally entangled in what you do; as much as possible, try to “leave work at work.” If you care for a loved one at home, try to identify what is and is not your responsibility. For example, you may need to make it clear to your loved one that although you care deeply for him or her, you are not able to meet all of his or her needs all of the time. Explain that you need to work collaboratively with others in the community (physicians, therapists, pastors, friends, and other family members) in your caregiving efforts.
Consider Seeking Support
Consider seeking support from professional sources, such as a counselor, therapist, or spiritual director. These resources can be invaluable for mitigating the stresses of caring for those in need.
Caregiving can be simultaneously the most demanding and the most rewarding work we do. It is part of what connects us to one another as human beings and embodies the love of God. It is vital to ensure that caregivers have adequate support and resources so that their ministry may continue.
The Rev. Scott Fuller is a D.Min. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He has served in several different positions in health care providing spiritual care and counseling for patients and their families. Currently, he is a chaplain at Life Pittsburgh.