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Caregivers Are Heroes, But Not Superhuman

Taking breaks and attending to their own needs can help these dedicated men and women stay at their most effective.

Caregivers are heroes — they care for our community’s most vulnerable. They care for our youngest and eldest generations, provide care and support to the sick and dying, and assist those with substance abuse or mental health disorders and developmental or physical disabilities. These are the family members, friends, professionals, paraprofessionals and volunteers there for us during the most difficult and trying times of our lives.

Although caregivers are heroes, they are not superheroes. They are prone to sickness, depression, sleep deprivation and neglecting other physical, emotional and spiritual needs for themselves. They give of themselves but too often forget to give back to themselves to stay physically and mentally healthy. Self care is the most neglected and important thing a caregiver must do.   

I recently spoke with Dr. Michael Sheehan, medical director for Operation PAR, where I work. He is a psychiatrist who has experience with caregivers who come from a variety of backgrounds. From family members to professional counselors, caregiving is serious work. Sheehan makes a point to remind caregivers to love their neighbors and themselves. That is to say, no more and no less, that balance is the key to living and giving.

Sheehan uses the example of the oxygen mask on an airplane. Passengers are instructed to put their own masks on before assisting others. Why? “You have only a few minutes of not having any oxygen for yourself before you pass out," Sheehan said. "Then, you’re no good to anyone. You won’t be able to help anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first.”

Caregivers sometimes feel like they must do everything themselves, he said. “Sometimes caregivers feel like they are a knight in shining armor, that without them no one else could fill this role and no one could ever do these tasks as well as they do. This is a danger sign. Often the person who is being cared after helps foster this role for the caregiver, helping to convince them that only he or she can be here for them."

“We need to remember that we are all part of a team of caregivers," he said. "There may be other family members, neighbors, friends and community resources we can use to help us build a team of support and caregiving. It is a balancing act.”

It is critical that caregivers build a network of support. First, help assign roles to family and friends, those who are willing to help in some way. Also seek out help from your community. Depending on your individual needs, many churches, area hospices and social service organizations can fill in some gaps and offer services and support. There is a national 211 information and referral search, sponsored in part by the United Way. This is both a phone and online directory for countless services available in your community. To access the service, dial 211 or go to www.211.org.

In addition to maintaining methods of self care and support, identifying and treating burnout is another critical step a caregiver must take. Caring for others can be rewarding, but it is not easy. Burnout is common among caregivers, and sometimes it can go unidentified for a long time, increasing the negative effects.

“Burnout is not always easy to identify in its early stages, but early detection is critical to help ensure that long-term effects do not take hold," Sheehan said. "Moreover, people who reach burnout are often slow to see it in themselves. The first step in identification is often listening to the concern of others surrounding the caregiver.”

Some signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • Feeling an urge to abruptly flee the situation
  • Feeling trapped
  • Feeling apathetic — not caring and just wanting to get through the day
  • A decline in self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Feelings of depression, hostility and/or anger
  • Irritability — engaging in arguments with family members and co-workers
  • Inability to enjoy yourself in situations that used to be pleasurable
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Physical distress, including stomachaches, headaches, insomnia, chronic colds or flu
  • Overusing or abuse of alcohol and other drugs
  • Overeating, under-eating or other compulsive issues
  • Failing to take care of your daily needs, such as paying bills, attending appointments, exercising and eating healthfully, or doing things you enjoy

If you are a caregiver who may be experiencing some of these symptoms or if you know a caregiver who is showing signs of one or more of these symptoms, don’t panic. There are many ways to successfully overcome the effects of burnout. Most often, that includes finding a way to take a break from the caregiving role.

“Some caregivers may feel like this is irresponsible or uncaring because they have become so connected to the role of caregiver," Sheehan said. "Yet taking a break is critical to maintaining or regaining a sense of good mental health. It also will help reinforce the perspective that is very freeing — there is not just one caregiver; it is teamwork.”

You may also choose to seek out counseling to help identify ways to reduce the burden of your role as caregiver, emotionally and realistically. A mental health professional will be able to assist you in identifying needs and treatment for burnout, and help link you to resources and supportive services.

Other great resources for caregivers in Pinellas County and beyond include:

Daphne Taylor Street August 29, 2011 at 04:33 PM
Thanks so much, Jena! Much credit goes to the wisdom, experience and knowledge of Dr. Michael Sheehan.
Renee CarterGura August 29, 2011 at 04:33 PM
Excellent article that is very informative and useful! Thanks for writing it. I look forward to reading more of your articles.
Daphne Taylor Street August 29, 2011 at 04:41 PM
Thanks very much Renee, and thank you for your work in our community!
William Harper August 31, 2011 at 07:31 PM
Great article, Daphne! I enjoyed all of it and look forward to reading your articles. I'll also be happy to share information with you about ASAP services! William H.
Daphne Taylor Street September 01, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Thanks very much, William! I look forward to the opportunity --Daphne

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