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Do yoga to avoid caregiver burnout

Most of you know that I’ve been helping to take care of my mom since her stroke 30 months ago. Those first few months were nothing short of horrendous. I didn’t know the stress I was under and that one of my biggest lessons would be to avoid caregiver burnout.

According to AARP, as many as 41 million of us are caring for our adult family members. It’s not a role I ever planned for so I was completely unaware of the stress created by caring for an aging parent. Thirty-six percent of family caregivers characterize their situation as highly stressful, according to the “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” report from AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC). No one tells you how to avoid caregiver burnout.

And I’m here to tell you that it is real! I was living on wine and mini Dove bars (if I ate at all). 

My days were spent shuttling back and forth between my mom’s nursing home and dealing with emails and client work. It was incredibly stressful but I was just going through the motions.

It wasn’t until I ended up in the hospital with a panic attack that it hit me like a ton of bricks: In my quest to take care of my mom, I was NOT taking care of myself. So I hired a health coach and buckled down and decided to put my health first. I’ve learned a few things on this unanticipated journey and wanted to share some of the ways I’ve learned to focus on myself.

5 ways to avoid caregiver burnout

1. Morning routine – Trust me, you need one. Before, I was waking up and rushing out the door to feed my mom breakfast. After my little hospital stay, I began taking a leisurely walk with the dog around a beautiful lake just to start the day on my terms.

2. Exercise – No matter what it is, you need to move. Even a brisk morning walk will do wonders for your mind. Being a caregiver definitely takes a lot of mental and physical energy so I’d recommend getting your exercise in early in the day. I enrolled in a morning yoga class and that became my priority. I could take care of myself in the morning and be with my mom for lunch.

3. Clean up your diet and eat light – Sustaining yourself on chocolate and ice cream bars will do a number on you! I just didn’t have the energy or creativity to cook so I began subscribing to a plant-based meal delivery service, Purple Carrot. I’d make one of the meals for dinner and would have enough left over for lunch the next day. This is probably my single most important tip. Eating light and healthy when your body is under so much stress really does make you feel so much better. 

4. Sleep hygiene – This goes without saying. Getting enough sleep is as important for your mind as it is for your body. Sleep is when all of your body’s functions restore and reset themselves. So if your body is not at rest, this doesn’t happen. Make your nighttime routine something special (blog post coming soon on this). Buy fancy new pajamas. Purchase a soothing lavender hand lotion and use it at bedtime. Buy the silkiest sheets you can find. Find the best way for your mind to unwind at night whether it’s reading a book, journaling or watching your favorite cooking show (this worked for me!).

5. Talk it out – I share my frustrations and (rare) triumphs with anyone who will listen, even the checker at the grocery store. Sometimes it just helps to say it out loud, or to get an occasional, “I’m sorry. I hope your day gets better.” I think you’ll be surprised to hear how many people can empathize with those of us who are caregivers. I’ve turned to a friend who was a caregiver for her own mother and can certainly offer me solace and advice. My girlfriends are always there to pull me out of my slump with a night out wine tasting. My kids lift me up when they call and ask how I am. And my (poor) husband, just has to let me vent sometimes.

If you are or have ever been a caregiver, please share in the comments some ways you’ve found to avoid burnout. I’d love to serve as a resource for others by offering more tips and ideas for caring for ourselves first.

How to avoid caregiver burnout

Death is birth in reverse. That’s what our hospice nurse keeps telling me every time I question a new behavior of my mom. And every time I find myself in the baby aisle at Target buying diapers, sippy cups, and picture books, I realize just how right she is as a caregiver for my elderly mother.

Read more: Tips for Caring for Elderly Parents

Caring for An Elderly Parent

Fifteen months ago, my mother had a brain aneurysm. My life, and my self as I knew it, changed dramatically in the months following as I recounted in this blog post and became the caregiver for my mother. And the dramatic changes continue.

I’m fanatical about researching things (just ask my friends and family who call me often to ask about everything from diagnosing a strange symptom to solving a household dilemma), so I’ve acquired an inordinate amount of information and family caregiving resources. And, the reality is that many of us have (or will) experience this same task of parenting a parent. I received a call from an acquaintance recently whose father had a stroke, and she said, “Tell me everything you’ve learned.” I asked her how much time she had. So, I thought I’d pay it forward and share some of the wisdom that I’ve learned after caring for my elderly mother

Read more: Parenting Your Elderly Parent

Advocating for Elderly Parents

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

I have encountered numerous health professionals, who have each told me how my mom should act, feel, behave, and respond. But I can’t help but think to myself, “I have known my mom for 55 years – you’ve known her for six months. I’m the caregiver for my mother. “Doctors, nurses, and aides are tasked with taking care of her, but no one knows my mom better than I do. I’m the one who can tell when she’s got a UTI simply by her behavior (my mother cannot speak or gesture). I know she cries in the shower because she’s cold. I know she doesn’t like to sleep with socks on. Above and beyond, I know her better than anyone, so I will not stop advocating for my elderly mother

Caregiving for the Elderly

Photo credit Matthias Zomer

Initially, we took my mother home, thinking we could care best for her on our own. I planned to be my mother’s caregiver. Within a few short weeks, we knew we needed an extra hand or two. I placed an ad on a local website for caregivers, and my life became consumed with interviewing Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) and elder sitters. I asked for references, checked backgrounds, and held tryouts. There is no substitute for gut instinct. There was the overnight aide we had to send home at 4 a.m. because she was too rough with my mom, and quite frankly, creepy. There was the live-in we interviewed who was a sweet Southern belle from my mom’s hometown and seemed too good to be true.

We would later find out she was. The sad fact is that elder sisters and certified CNAs are woefully underpaid for the tasks they perform. Some days, I felt like I was running a fast food joint staffed by teenagers as I got call after call with excuses of “My car won’t start,” “I don’t have money for gas,” and “My kid is sick, so I can’t work today.” We ultimately went through an agency, paid a higher rate, and found somewhat more reliable aides. The lesson here: Good aides are hard to find. If you find one, do everything possible to keep him/her happy. We currently have two sitters for my mom, who have since become like family to us.

Read more: A Guide to Caring for Elderly Parents

Seek Financial Guidance for Senior Care and Living Expenses

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

I’m fortunate that one of my brothers is in the financial industry. But, if you’re not that lucky, I highly recommend you find someone who knows the senior care market. Just as a point of reference, we had my mom’s care based on her finances figured out to the month (roughly 84 of them). We went through about 30 of those months in the first 12.

First, you’ll need to know and understand what Medicare does and does not cover;  for example, it does not cover home health aides, who assist with daily acvtivities like bathing, eating, moving, and grooming. These individuals also check vital signs and keep track of the care recipient’s overall physical and mental health (i.e. how often they go to the bathroom, what their mood is like, if they are eating or drinking enough, and so on). 

Long-term care policies (my mother’s saved us, quite frankly) often have a waiting period; we endured unplanned out-of-pocket expenses for the first 90 days of my mom’s care. If a parent was a veteran, they or their spouse may be entitled to a monthly stipend. I spent weeks trying to track down my dad’s documents only to find that he did not qualify based on his dates of service.

The bottom line? The two pieces of advice I can offer as a caregiver for an elderly parent: 1) sit down with your parent before they become ill and understand these financial resources and know where the actual documents are — or better yet, hire an elder attorney to help you with it all, and 2) plan for more expenses. We didn’t anticipate needing sitters for my mom but our/her needs changed; they generally run between $12 to $15 per hour, so you do the math.

Read more: Long-Term Care Policies, Explained

Know When to Ask for (More) Help

Photo credit: Pixabay

As I recounted in my previous post, my brothers and sister-in-law and I took turns sleeping on her floor and taking care of her in those early days. We cared for her 24/7. But as her needs increased (two-person assist will become part of your vocabulary as will lots of potty talk) and our need for sleep and respite increased, we hired aides. But, after numerous hospitals stays and continued cognitive declines, we knew we were out of our league. We made the difficult decision to take that next step and look at assisted living facilities. Truth be told, I lay awake many nights and question whether this was the right decision.

Choosing An Assisted Living Facility 

Photo credit: Pixabay

I think this step of the journey — which was the most difficult — is akin to that of finding the perfect wedding gown. You just know. And in both of these cases, for me, it was the first one. In those initial days, we were filled with distrust. I was leaving my mother, who is unable to communicate, in the hands of strangers. It’s much like dropping your baby off at that new day care (remember that birth in reverse analogy I started with). We were the squeakiest wheel for which no amount of WD40 could silence. In fact, in our first week, the new primary care doctor we engaged fired us. Yes! He fired us! He felt we were asking too many questions, especially about new medications he was prescribing. We frequently made requests of the staff as she (and we) tried to adjust to her new “home.” She likes her coffee this way. She is hypersensitive to noise and activity so she needs quiet alone time. She gets uncomfortable in her wheelchair so her legs need to be propped up just so. Her room was covered with sticky note reminders and lists. We knew we were annoying the staff, but my mother had no voice — so we had to be hers. There are amazing aides at her facility and there are mediocre aides. And clearly, there are a few who certainly don’t want to be there. But I would say that the majority of them are incredibly passionate about what they do and when they don’t know I’m looking, I see them steal kisses and gently brush a resident’s hair. But the stark reality is, in assisted living facilities, time and attention are a commodity. Many of these aides have seven or more patients. It’s difficult for them to give one on one attention for feeding, calming, or just offering companionship, which is why we have sitters.

Read more: 6 Factors to Consider When Choosing an Assisted Living Facility

What You Need to Know About Hospice

Photo credit: Joshua Hoehne

This is one of those tips I learned from a friend who was parenting a parent. Hospice has proven to be an invaluable resource for us. Since my mother is wheelchair bound, taking her out to see a doctor was a nonstarter. Most assisted living facilities have doctors who come visit patients. Ours did, but remember, he fired us. I found other medical services and physicians that offer housecalls for a premium rate (worth exploring). But, as the caregiver for my mother, I learned that hospice provides a full medical team, and many other services, to those who qualify. Being certified for hospice generally means you have six months or less to live but some patients actually improve after receiving hospice care (my mother did due to the quality and continuity) so they’re able to get re-certified. My mother has a nurse who visits her one to two times weekly, an aide who bathes her daily, a massage therapist, and a chaplain. As my mom’s caregiver, having access to these services, not to mention the incredibly caring spirit of the people and organization, has given us incredible peace of mind. You should know that Medicare will only cover hospice and will not cover any other care. So, we had to stop physical therapy (she wasn’t making progress anyway). We could no longer see her doctors at Mayo Clinic (unless we private paid which we did a few times just to get a second opinion — that’s that cha-ching I mentioned earlier).

Consider Medical Marijuana and CBD Oil 

Photo credit: CBD Infos

My mother’s aneurysm left her with a brain injury. So, it causes some behaviors and symptoms we’ve really never been able to find an answer for. She’s been on multiple medications to manage these symptoms and, as I’m sure you can guess, most have side effects — including sedation. But, we didn’t want my mom sedated. We wanted her to be awake and able to interact with us in her own way (many people ask, and yes, she knows who we are as she does not have classic dementia). Her dosages of meds continued to increase to control her (increasing) agitation and restlessness. With that came more sleeping, less eating, fewer interactions. So, we began experimenting with cannabis. The first day we gave her a dose of CBD oil, within 30 minutes, her entire demeanor changed. And soon it gave way to smiles. And laughter. And giggling. And yes, the munchies. We’ve tried oils (dripped into her mouth) and patches. We recently discontinued all of the synthetic medications and replaced them with cannabis. If you’re lucky enough to live in a state where medical marijuana is legal, find a doctor who can prescribe it and at least try it. Some assisted living facilities will administer it if prescribed by a doctor. Cannabis is simply an essential oil — just like the lavender oil they diffuse in hospitals. You can choose from non-psychoactive CBD and psychoactive THC. We’ve found that a combination of both work best for my mom.

Try Not to Feel Guilty

Photo credit: Brett Sayles

Sometimes, when I’m sitting home drinking a glass of wine or driving by the beach, I feel these pangs of guilt that my mom can’t do these things anymore. I’m sad that I can’t take her to a spa and treat her to a facial — one of our regular mother-daughter indulgences. She’ll never do many of the things she always enjoyed. I’d like to be able to offer the advice, “Don’t feel guilty,” but I can’t. It’s horrible that she’s living in a cell-like tiny room and her only escape is when someone wheels her outside for some fresh air. She’ll never see the beach again. She’ll never visit another spa. But we’re there for her virtually every day and we now relish the little things, like her recognition of “The Andy Griffith Show” opening music. Or seeing something in her brain click when I make her one of her favorite southern casseroles and she takes that first bite. Or when she laughs as my brother talks about how dirty her house is and that her dog needs a haircut. We now cherish the little reactions as we create new memories. Not memories of places, but memories of us.