By Catherine Séguin-Green and Marie-Ève Gingras, Caregiver Support counsellors and fourth-year doctorate students in psychology at UQAM
We rarely wake up one morning and suddenly become caregivers. This role usually becomes a reality gradually, by dint of taking care of a loved one. Tasks and responsibilities that we are not always prepared to assume multiply over the months, sometimes even years. Subtly and sometimes surreptitiously, the signs of stress and fatigue build up and risk leading us to burnout.
To preserve or improve your psychological health, it is of utmost importance to reserve time for yourself. A caregiver has a series of daily and weekly tasks to get through, not to mention the mental load, namely the fact of being concerned about the other person, anticipating their needs and planning based on their well-being. The need for caregivers to take care of themselves is widely recognized.
Many people have difficulty accepting the idea of delegating certain tasks, or even to no longer play this role. This makes them feel like they are abandoning their loved one or breaking their commitments. For example, many caregivers feel guilty after placing their loved one in long-term care. For someone who has taken care of a parent, spouse or friend for a long period of time, the transformation of the caregiver role is not seamless. Nevertheless, the transition to a long-term care setting does not necessarily mean a rupture in the relationship. Although most of the daily care provided to a loved one is now looked after by the staff of the long-term care facility, the caregiver still has an essential role of support and being by their loved one’s side. They can still provide the person with quality time together. Not to mention that they can help them adapt to their new living environment, because they know their tastes, interests and habits well. The Prendre soin de moi tout en prenant soin de l’autre (Taking care of myself while taking care of someone else) guide from l’Appui Mauricie (in French only) also covers the challenges in the transition to long-term care and suggests ways to cope with these changes more effectively.
Regardless of whether long-term care is envisioned, caregivers must take their own needs and limitations into consideration; these may change over time if necessary to readjust their level of commitment to the person receiving care. When asked about this, many caregivers we meet in our practice admit to feeling like they cannot provide the same level of care and support for very much longer. Hence the importance for them to reflect on the best way to take care of themselves, so they can maintain their equilibrium and be able to continue taking care of a loved one in the short, medium and long term (to take time for themselves, to express their emotions, to take care of their physical and psychological health, to seek help, etc.). Anyone who has travelled by plane knows that if anything happens, you are supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others. To be able to help someone else, you first have to make sure you help yourself.
Some people believe that asking for help is admitting defeat. It is important to try to demystify and deconstruct this perception. What is behind it? What are the requirements imposed on me? What are the ones I impose on myself? Reflecting on these things helps you become aware of your emotional experience and make adjustments as needed. You have to think about yourself a bit more and not wait until you have gone past your own limits and feel exhausted.
Accepting and expressing your emotions
When you take care of a loved one every day, it is normal to go through a full range of emotions. On this topic, we encourage you to read the article (in French only) published by Centre AvantÂge (Des émotions propres aux aidants), which covers the weight of guilt among other topics. We know that many people feel uncomfortable about the idea of talking about their emotions. However, it may be that in the past, they felt like they were not heard or that their emotions were not acknowledged (denial, minimizing, dismissal of the emotion, etc.). Or they may associate it with an unpleasant experience, perhaps accompanied by feelings of physical discomfort (shaking, chest tightness, a knot in the stomach, weight on the shoulders, etc.). That said, despite the emotional and physical distress that may be connected to the expression of emotions, it is widely recognized that it is better to express emotions, ideally in a safe space (for example, with someone we trust or a qualified health professional), than to hold them in. It is normal to experience emotions, whatever they are, and then be able to externalize them in a healthy way. That is why it is important to deconstruct the prejudices preventing this externalization.
Although we have little awareness of it on a daily basis, the expression of our emotions is governed by several social codes that influence - or even dictate at certain times - the appropriate intensity and form, as well as contexts, with which to do so. Can we thus say that emotions are not always well received in our society? To a certain extent, yes. And this may influence the way we do things and lead us to believe that emotions have little or no importance. Fortunately, both collectively and individually, reflection work can be done to better understand and deconstruct certain beliefs and certain taboos, all to facilitate the expression of emotions and the creation of an appropriate space for doing so.
Asking for help
We often tell people who call us: “It takes strength and courage to let yourself feel vulnerable and to take steps to get help.” Asking for help is neither a sign of weakness nor an admission of defeat. It is quite the opposite; by using the support resources made available to them, caregivers make their processes easier, give themselves room to breathe and take care of themselves, while ensuring that their loved one receives the support they need.
As we pointed out in the article Pourquoi la psychothérapie a-t-elle le potentiel de soutenir un proche aidant? (Why does psychotherapy have the potential to support a caregiver?), giving yourself time to think about yourself and to work on yourself is essential to avoid neglecting yourself. Reserving time for yourself and giving yourself the opportunity to express your emotions benefits the caregiver-care receiver relationship. This allows another emotional stage to be reached and it helps prevent negative emotions from the past and present from overpowering us on a daily basis. It does us good and allows us to move on to something else afterwards.
Need to talk?
One of the first steps in talking about your emotions may be to call a helpline. Caregiver Support is available to help you, direct you and listen to you. Don’t hesitate to contact us by phone at 1-855-852-7784 or by e-mail.