Caring for a family member is an unpaid, often invisible full-time job with long hours, no breaks, no holidays and no days off. It is not surprising that many carers burn out, develop depression and struggle to cope. As a carer, your needs always come second, your hobbies, career and future prospects are at best side-lined and at worst sacrificed and your needs are almost always secondary because they just aren’t as urgent and important as those of the person who depends on you.
It is easy to allow your role as carer to overwhelm every aspect of life, including the personal relationship you may have once had with the person you care for. The following five ground rules have had a positive impact on my family and have helped us focus on the things we can accomplish instead of the things we can’t do for ourselves.
1. Integrate care into daily life and regular routines
The requirement for care has a way of upsetting the balance in a relationship. One person is dependent on another for basic things like being able to have a shower, going to the toilet or administering life saving medications. Government support, whether via the NHS or social services tend to add more strain on personal relationships as bureaucracy adds red tape to your personal life. The support one family member provides for another is quantified and measured, separated out from daily living and carers can be side-lined in the process with little attention paid to their lives whilst expected to do most or all of the tasks with little practical help and no emotional support.
Incorporating care into daily life and regular routines rather than viewing it as a separate tasks can take a lot of the pressure off and also provide the opportunity for closer relationships to develop. Providing care for a close family member does not have to be clinical and it doesn’t have to happen according to any rules. If everyone brushes their teeth together, helping each other, it becomes just another mundane part of the day.
2. Everyone gets to eat three meals a day
Mealtimes are usually a time when carer assistance is needed to either slice, chop or feed the person they care for. If the person you care for can eat independently, get everything ready before anyone starts eating and then eat together as a family. If significant support is needed, try scheduling staggered mealtimes or slice their food in advance and then take turns to have a bite. It is very frustrating to try and sit down for a meal and an hour later only having eaten one bite. It also leads to carers not stopping to eat. Make time to eat together, but also just make time to eat.
3. Provide care in blocks
Some parts of providing care for someone are not that time sensitive. It is fetching things, issuing reminders and doing routine things that the person cannot do themselves. Most of these can all be grouped into a 5-10 minute job rather than constantly interrupting someone else to be there every time one item comes up.
Put a system in place to group non-essential requests together. Leave text messages or write down a list for the next time something that is time sensitive comes up. Also incorporate daily repetitive tasks into a set routine. Have a morning routine, meal routines, a bed time routine, a toilet break routine and try to group things together so that care can be provided at intervals.
4. Plan ahead
Make the important decisions early on. Caring for a loved one is often something that slowly creeps up on family members and as one person needs more care a loved one provides it until the point where it gets too much to manage. Don’t let it happen. Plan ahead.
Decide how to integrate care into every day life so that it doesn’t become an extra burden. Put appropriate and adequate support in place. Insist that support is provided in a positive way that compliments existing routines by adding more options and possibilities that everyone involved is happy to embrace.
5. Make time for organization
It takes time to get organized, but being organized saves time in the long run. Make organization a priority. Get a calendar, keep a to-do list, invest time to develop and grow meal plans. It pays off sooner than you think. Time and energy are two important commodities when living with a chronic illness or disability and when taking on the additional tasks of taking care of someone. Being organized can save both time and energy. It is much easier to quickly put together a meal when there is a meal plan to follow and all the ingredients are at hand. The more tasks run on automated systems, the less time and energy everyone has to invest in making life run smoothly.
Caregiving does not have to be a burden. Caring for someone does require a lot of time, patience and it does impact on life in significant ways, but so does a great deal of other things, like taking on an extra project at work or deciding to become a mature student.
Becoming a carer isn’t always a choice, but approaching the situation positively can make a tremendous difference to how things turn out. Be proactive, remain positive and make sure everyone has a voice and a choice. It is a strategy that has worked well for us.