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Working Caregivers - Balance or Burn Out?

Putting the words "caregiving", "work" and "life balance" into the same sentence is almost comical.  Yet it is no joke to manage all three at the same time.   It is very hard, focussed work to be the caregiver that you think you need to be, productive in the workplace and still have time in your life to enjoy other things and other people.

According to the 2009 report funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. titled:  Balancing Paid Work and Caregiving Responsibilities:  A Closer Look at Family Caregivers in Canada, authored by, Linda Duxbury, PhD, Christopher Higgins, PhD. & Bonnie Schroeder, MSW, RSW

"Employed caregivers have two full-time jobs".  Working caregivers were interviewed and here are some of their findings:

The demands placed on employed caregivers are onerous. The majority of caregivers in the interview study “work” the equivalent of two full-time jobs: they spend an average of 36.5 hours per week in paid employment and 34.4 hours per week in caregiving (30.3 hours per week providing care and 4.1 hours per week commuting because of caregiving commitments).

While a substantial portion (37%) of the respondents commit 40 to 60 hours per week to their dual roles, almost one in four spend more than a 100 hours a week fulfilling work and caregiving obligations.

If you are a caregiver, work outside your home and want balance in your life you need to develop and continually tweak a “life plan” that works for you.  Caregiving is often a gradual process.  For many, it begins with the simple addition of a few extra tasks each week. Over time, these tasks become responsibilities and "suddenly" they are included in your life; every week, every month and every year.

Before you really know it, you have become a caregiver.  Most of us are not trained or ready to be caregivers. It is a chapter of our lives that most ignore until an emergency forces itself on us.  Our personal biggest challenge is to survive this phase of our lives.  How can we keep some sense or normality?  How can we learn to keep our sanity, add value and be true to ourselves?  How can we avoid getting burnt out?  Finding answers to these questions is a personal journey.  Only you will know what works in your life. 

In my situation, although I was honoured to be my parent’s principal caregiver for ten years, I really had to learn to put some balance back in my life.  I was so focused on being the best caregiver / daughter that I could that I neglected my own health, my own family and friends.  It was only in the last several years of caregiving that I truly was able to have peace and balance.  I would like to share a few rules that I developed to bring balance back into my life.  I hope that you find them of value.

1.     Separate your worlds

Consider treating each major part of your life separately.  Try not to let one flow into another.  Unless I was dealing with a true emergency situation, overtime I developed the skill to focus on one part of my life at a time and let the others take a back seat.  This gave me the ability to have great focus.  Sometimes my parents were the focus, sometimes when they were doing fine, so I "purposely put them in the back seat".  This approach to managing my life did not always please everyone.  I always said to myself "who needs me the most"?  I put my energies and time where they were best appreciated. This gave me peace and greatly reduced my stress. 

When I was caring for my parents – they got all my attention.   Rarely did I have my cell phone on, or deal with issues that did not relate to them.  My time, energy and efforts were focused on making them safe, comfortable and as happy as possible.   Never did I tell them about the pressures and stresses that caregiving brought to my life.

If I were out to dinner with my husband and friends, I purposely did not talk about my care giving issues, stresses or problems.   I focussed on the people with whom I was with at the moment.  I quickly learned that others need attention and get ‘sick of hearing” caregiving stories. 

 If you are at work, limit the number of caregiving issues and challenges that you share with colleagues. I have heard of many situations when employers become less tolerate of staff leaving work early and are now tracking lost productivity.  The last thing you want to do is to be written up or lose your job because of your caregiving efforts. 

2.     Decide what comes off your plate

Write down 3 things that are not mandatory or true priorities in your life today.  These may be activities such as volunteering at the local food bank, keeping a perfectly clean house or taking that extra night course to improve your work skills. 

Caregiving generally becomes more intense and demanding over time.  Also, at some point caregiving does decline and even may stop completely.  Once your caregiving time is freed up, you will be thrilled to re-visit the activities that you gave up during this period.

3.     Dealing with guilt

I remember when I could barely breathe with all the things I had to do in my day to manage my parents, their home, their appointments, my own household, my responsibilities and relationships. There never was any real thought about taking care of myself.  I often called myself a "Living Band Aid" just barely keeping things "together" in every aspect of my life.

As caregivers, we try to be all things to all people. The lack of control, combined with the feeling that we are not doing the best for everyone, caused great guilt.

Guilt can be a powerful, often ugly beast. Often, we feel guilty when:

  • We have to leave the person we are caring for to head back to our own "worlds"
  • We are at work and not with them
  • We have to leave work to be with them
  • We don’t have time for our own family or friends
  • We just don’t have the time to sit and have a cup of tea
  • We are impatient with how they are changing mentally and physically
  • We replace ourselves with "things" in their lives
  • We don’t call or visit enough
  • Distance stops us from visiting and helping more often
  • The lack of money stops us from doing more
  • We don’t do our best for them

The guilt can be is endless. The energy we have to deal with it is not.

How do we handle all the guilt? The simplest answer I found is: Do your best, both for the people for whom you care and for yourself. That may sound odd, self-serving and selfish, but let me explain my idea.

Everyone's situations and resources are different. We all have to make tough decisions that fit our worlds and our hearts. The result may not be perfect, but life is not perfect either. Reduce your guilt by doing the best that you can. Others may suffer or disagree with your decisions, but stay focused on doing the "right thing."

In time, you will be able to look back and be glad you made the tough decisions to do the best for the people that you cared for. If you don’t do your best, then you should feel guilty.  You will find comfort in being able to separate grief from guilt. This is a powerful gift that only you can give to yourself

In my situation, now that both my parents are dead, I can honestly say that I have no guilt about how I helped them. I can clearly separate grief from guilt. I miss them terribly, but know that I gave them everything that I could, based on my personal situation and the resources available to me.  Because I have no guilt, I am at peace with myself.

As a final thought, caregiving has many rewards, but it also has many challenges.   Balance comes over time.  It comes with knowing that you are doing the best you can, with the resources at your disposal.   You will be very proud of yourself when you are able to use the words "caregiver", "work" and "life balance" in one sentence with an honest smile on your face and a laugh in your voice.

Mary Bart - Chair, Caregiving Matters
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