February 18, 2022

Helping those who help others

The job is one the majority of us don’t think about, plan for, or are fully prepared to perform. But becoming a caregiver is something many of us are destined to do, whether we choose to or not.

“It’s a hard job, no matter if you’re a family caregiver or are a professional caregiver,” said Dr. Kristin Litzelman, an assistant professor at UW-Madison and Human Development and Family Studies State Specialist with Family Living Programs through the UW Cooperative Extension School of Human Ecology.

“If you’re coming in to give those services and provide the physical support and the emotional support, it’s not easy for anyone,” Litzelman says.

Caregiving is not a one-way street

The job can be stressful, overwhelming and all-consuming, especially for family caregivers. Or, in some cases, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. The number one thing to remember, Litzelman says, is that caregiving is not a one-way street.

“You have to take care of yourself to take care of others,” Litzelman said. “If you’re not taking care of yourself, there’s no way that you can provide help to someone else. You won’t have the physical strength. You won’t have the emotional strength. And when we hear from caregivers, the priority often is the person that they’re caring for.”

“They don’t want to take time out to take care of themselves because they feel guilty, or they feel selfish, or they feel like they just don’t have time because they’re so focused on the person they’re providing care to,” Litzelman adds. “And, yes, that person is a high priority. But you also have to prioritize yourself, or you’re never going to be able to maintain that role.”

And if you as the caregiver are not doing well, that has the potential to spread like the common cold. Litzelman’s research shows that when caregivers have depressive symptoms, the person they’re caring for can be up to four times more likely to become depressed themselves.

“There is a lot of overlap, especially between spouses as caregivers and care recipients,” Litzelman explains.

There are a wide variety of stress triggers for caregivers: physical, emotional, educational, family and financial.

“It comes from all different areas and it really comes down to the perception, or feeling, like they are overwhelmed and don’t have control over the situations that they face,” said Litzelman.

Litzelman says women who are caregivers often experience more stress than men, and people who have lower education might experience more caregiving-related stress as they grapple with having to navigate the health care system, having to understand the medications they’re providing to the person they’re caring for, etc.

“People who are providing a lot of care and are living with the person they are providing care to, that can be a lot more stressful because it puts a lot more pressure on the person who is doing the caregiving,” Litzelman said.

A caregiver’s ability to manage stress can also depend on whether the patient is battling cancer or is under the grip of Alzheimer’s. The stress can stem from up with a demanding treatment schedule. The travel. Giving injections. Cleaning ports.

“There are so many components that come into it, that it all can come together in a very negative way sometimes,” Litzelman added.

How to offer support to a caregiver

If you are a caregiver, or know of someone who is, there is help. But first, remember this:

“If you ask a caregiver, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ A caregiver often will say ‘Nothing, I’m fine,’ ‘’ said Litzelman. “They don’t necessarily think about what they need. The best thing that caregivers can get in terms of support is that emotional support. Having her know that you’re there for her, that you’re willing to listen, that you’re willing to help. That helps in itself. Just asking what you can do can be really helpful.”

Another way to help is offering the functional support of taking on some of the tasks that the caregiver may not have time for, whether that’s household tasks such as doing dishes or going grocery shopping, or being the one who works through the finances of the household.

“That can really be helpful in taking some of those things off the caregiver’s plate,” Litzleman says. “But it really depends on what they need.”

Outside help is crucial, but even navigating through the number of resources can be as overwhelming as the job itself.

Litzelman recommends the following caregiving resources:

The Aging and Disability Resource Center can identify what services are available in Wisconsin, community by community, Litzelman said.

“This is a federally and state-funded program where it’s their job to help people connect with those resources and to help family caregivers and families with aging adults,” Litzelman says. “That’s a really good place to start to get those life services.”

She also stressed the importance of helping caregivers get support early in their caregiving journey, when they’re starting to experience the stress of simply taking on the often daunting caregiving role.

“Preventing burnout, preventing those high levels of stress — that’s a lot easier than pulling someone back once they reach that point of burnout,” Litzelman said.