Teaching Caregivers To Care For Themselves

May 15, 2015

An estimated 22 million Americans act as caregivers for someone with a chronic medical condition.  Typically, it’s a son or daughter taking care of an aging parent. It can be rewarding, but often it’s also stressful and draining, especially for caretakers who neglect to take care of themselves.

"We just feel like we can do it all and forget that we need time to take care of me, and unfortunately statistics show us that oftentimes the care giver passes away before the care receiver just because of the stress of the job," says Sheryl Knowles.

Knowles is with Montana State University’s Extension program. She teaches a six-week course called Powerful Tools for Caregivers. Recently, at the Montana Governor’s Conference on Aging, she explained how the course helps those who care for others, whether it’s a relative at home or a client in a residential facility. She says caregivers often feel guilty about taking time for themselves, but they shouldn’t.

"You cannot be an effective caregiver if you don’t take care of yourself first, so the course actually teaches skills to make you take better care of yourself so you can take better care of the care receiver."

At the conference, she took her audience through an exercise in drawing up an “action plan” for taking some personal time. First, decide what you want to do, something relaxing like meditating, reading the newspaper, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. Decide how much time you want to take, when you’re going to do it, how often, and you confidence level, that is, how confident are you that you can accomplish your plan.   Drawing up an action plan like this, and seeing it though, can be an effective step in fighting the depression that often plagues caregivers.

"Depression is much more prevalent among caregivers than the general population. Just the stress of care-giving can cause depression. So, we teach them some deep breathing exercises, some guided imagery, some of those kinds of things that would help them relax, and they can do that right there, in their home, by getting off in a corner by themselves for a few minutes," Knowles says.

Communication skills are emphasized  in the Powerful Tools for Caregivers course. Many have a hard time expressing their wants and needs to other family members. Some end up feeling isolated or even “used”. Knowles teaches them to voice their concerns without laying blame on the other person.

"We become resentful when we hear messages like ‘You were supposed to…’ or ‘You didn’t do this’ but when we rephrase those we can change the whole tone of the conversation. ‘I feel like I’m needing to take more care of Dad because you’re not able to be a part of that care plan.’ So, just how we say things makes a big difference in the actual outcome of the situation."

Powerful Tools for Caregivers is a nationwide curriculum that’s conducted in Montana by the MSU Extension. Classes are held throughout the state. In some communities the Montana Lifespan Respite Coalition can provide someone to be with the care receiver so the care giver can get away to attend the classes.