Caregivers play an immensely vital role in the lives of their loved ones. Self-care is important to build physical and mental stamina for the long haul.
For most, the act of caregiving in itself is rewarding and one that is a testament to the strong bonds that underlie the relationship. As a Medical Social Worker at Changi General Hospital (CGH), I have been privileged to meet caregivers from different walks of life, who have demonstrated how caring for a loved one can be a deeply fulfilling experience.
If one does not take care of one’s health and fortify one’s well-being, the challenges can easily become overwhelming over time.
Yet one thing appears fairly consistent: caregivers take on the majority of responsibilities in looking after their loved ones. And there is a tendency for many to inadvertently neglect their own well-being in doing so. Whenever I ask the caregivers how they are coping, or how they have been caring for themselves, the response I get is often a shrug and resigned smile.
Indeed the physical and emotional demands of the caregiving role can be exhausting. If one does not take care of one’s health and fortify one’s well-being, the challenges can become overwhelming over time. Research studies have shown that self-care and the ability to garner positive experiences from caregiving are important in helping caregivers remain mentally healthy and resilient. This form of resilience enables them to not only adapt to challenging situations, but to grow from it.
Here are some tips to build your resilience to prevent the buildup of stress and burnout.
Prioritise your health
I have seen a caregiver losing weight as she diligently cared for her husband due to his cancer relapse. It is easy to overlook the basic needs of eating well and getting sufficient sleep. A lack of these can lead to fatigue and compromise your own immunity. It is therefore crucial to take care of yourself before you can care for others.
Schedule regular breaks
Call it a time-out, a respite or simply take some moments to sip a cup of tea, listen to music, or catch up on your favourite K-drama. These regular breaks where you set aside time for yourself are necessary to help you rest and recharge. You may also wish to find time to pursue your own interests or hobbies. Exercising is also a good way to release stress and enhance your well-being.
Seek and accept help
Be open to the support from your family and friends, and ask them for help when you need it. It is also useful to suggest specific things for them to do, such as getting the groceries, preparing a meal, or even getting them to look after the patient for a short period while you get some rest or run errands. A caregiver once shared with me how grateful she was when her neighbours offered to bring meals for her children and accompany them to school.
Practise deep breathing exercises
Regular breathing exercises have a calming effect, release tension and aid relaxation. One simple breathing exercise is to breathe in slowly through the nose for five seconds, holding it for a further five seconds before exhaling through the mouth for two to three times as long. There are many other exercises such as yoga and meditation that are useful in relieving stress and eases anxiety.
Join a support group
Knowing that you are not alone on your caregiving journey can be immensely comforting. In addition to providing encouragement and validation, one can also draw on the experience of others for problem-solving strategies. Moreover, with Whatsapp and Telegram, support is a mere chat away, without the necessity of leaving home.
Manage your expectations
Be kind to yourself; there is no ‘perfect’ caregiver. Learn to appreciate your own efforts. Focus on what you are able to provide, and start with small steps in establishing a daily routine. If you enjoy writing, start a Gratitude Journal both as
a way to express your emotions and self-affirm your efforts and the small achievements of the day.
The hospital palliative and home hospice teams can be indispensable in providing the information needed to facilitate understanding, as well as allay concerns and fears of patients and their caregivers. CGH’s Palliative Care Service supports patients with debilitating conditions or terminal diagnoses through our medical care, and pain management treatments, as well as psychological, emotional, social and spiritual support. CGH also has a community palliative care collaboration with St. Andrew’s Community Hospital, known as the Violet Programme (VIP), which provides end-of-life care for non-cancer patients residing in the eastern part of Singapore.
In caring for patients and caregivers, the medical social workers at CGH help in care planning and navigating through healthcare and social services, government grants and applications. We guide you in practical matters from Advanced Care Planning and Lasting Power of Attorney, to discussions on last rites. We also provide emotional and familial support, as well as connect you to the relevant agencies for assistance. Caregivers can also reach out to social service agencies such as Singapore Cancer Society, Dementia Singapore, and Caregiver Alliance Limited, which can render services catered to a variety of needs and patient profiles.
Instead of shouldering the entire scope of responsibilities, don’t be afraid to reach out. A little help can go a long way in empowering your caregiving experience.