One of the most important and often overlooked jobs of providing care to a person with cancer or any other serious illness is for the caregiver to take care of themselves. This important fact is illustrated by the instructions passengers receive on airline flights that most of us have heard them many times. The directions on the oxygen mask state, “Put your oxygen mask on before assisting others.” This act is really selfless, not selfish, because you will not be able to help others if you are unconscious.
This metaphor is very important for anyone providing care. A caregiver’s physical, emotional and mental health has an effect on the well-being of the person with cancer or any illness. To give good care to another person, you must be good to yourself.
If you are a caregiver, you may feel stressed, anxious, depressed and frustrated from time to time. The following suggestions can help you feel less overwhelmed or burned out.
• Find support. There may be local resources, such as support groups, that can provide help. Meeting with others who are caring for someone can help you handle the common feelings of anger, guilt, isolation and sadness. You may learn new caregiving tips and techniques. Some people also find the companionship helpful. It can be enough to know you are not alone.
• Get help. Know your strengths and be realistic about what you can do. Do not feel you have to do it all. You can hire help for cleaning, errands, transportation, etc. Seek out family, friends and people in the community to assist with the care. Many people are often willing to help; accept their help and give them specific jobs.
• Make time for yourself and your other relationships. Spending time doing something you like and being with other people important to you will give you a much-needed break from caregiving. Be patient with yourself and try to find positive ways of coping. Make sure you exercise, eat healthily and get enough rest.
• Learn about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If you are employed, take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. This act requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees who need time off to care for a seriously ill family member. Employers are required to continue benefits during the leave period and some may allow a flexible or reduced work schedule. The FMLA also permits employers to provide leave provisions that are more generous than the act requires. Talk with your employer to learn about the specific provisions your company offers.
• Recognize the signs of stress. These can include getting ill more often, not sleeping, being irritable or forgetful, withdrawing from people and unusual tiredness. It is important to pay close attention to your emotional and mental health. Caregivers can be at increased risk for depression and anxiety. Learn about managing your stress and, when needed, talk with your doctor or a counselor.
Numerous organizations realize the value provided by caregivers and there are many resources available to help. The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute is happy to help direct local caregivers to these resources. Feel free to visit the Cancer Institute website at www.cancernepa.org or contact the organization by calling (800) 424-6724.
The Northeast Regional Cancer Institute is a nonprofit, community-based agency working to ease the burden of cancer in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Focusing on community and patient services, hospital and practice support services and survivorship, 100 percent of Cancer Institute resources are invested in this region. For more information about the cancer institute, visit www.cancernepa.org or call (800) 424-6724.