Caring Currents

"One Day at a Time" and 4 Other Caregiver Stress Coping Traps to Avoid

Last updated:

July 02, 2009
Desktop Calendar 04/2008
Image by +Angst used under the creative commons attribution license.

One of the more stressful aspects of taking care of an older adult is the not knowing. Nobody knows the future, obviously, but a caregiver's is doubly affected by the mysteries of someone else's reality, over which you have little control: How long will this phase of your life go on? How will the person's medical condition(s) progress? And what will that be like? How long can a parent live alone? How long can you stretch out the money? What about your own health, or marriage, or job; will they hold steady?

Many caregivers deal with the stress by using one of the following coping strategies. Unfortunately these comforting old saws are often more like traps: less calming than they first seem. Escape by giving them a few tweaks.

Trap: "Take it one day at a time."

Better: Take a peek around the corner.

Taking a hard situation day by day brings the undeniable benefit of making 24 hours seem less overwhelming. You break the cycle into manageable bits: Let's just get through breakfast"¦getting dressed"¦making it to the doctor's appointment"¦.

Trouble is, when every day is a long row of hurdles to leap, you make it to day's end, but waking up and starting all over again can seem just a tiny bit more daunting each morning. And it often is. An aging person's condition tends to worsen over time; he or she requires more help or care. You risk becoming the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, who doesn't realize the temperature is getting hotter, degree by degree, til he's boiled alive.

Do live in and appreciate each day as it comes. But widen your scope, too.

To avoid using your same approaches to dog paddle through the churning waters each day, keep in mind what's likely to come next. People with mid-stage Alzheimer's, for example, will eventually need to be watched 24/7 because of the risk of wandering or doing something dangerous. Learn the stages of Alzheimer's disease --- or whatever else ails your loved one --- and think proactively about how you'll tackle that eventual day.

Trap: "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."

Better: Build some bridges before you get to the abyss.

Reduce later stress by doing what you can in advance of a potential problem. For example:

  • If giving up the car keys is on the horizon, start investigating alternate modes of transportation now.
  • If you're already wondering how long a parent can live alone, consider consulting a senior move manager about how to decide on an eventual move and make it easier on everyone.
  • If you worry what the doctor says is getting "lost in translation," discuss getting a power of attorney for health care instead of waiting for a medical crisis.

Trap: "I'll think about it tomorrow (at Tara)."

Better: Think about it today (in your house, in your car, in the shower).

It's a wonder Scarlett O'Hara kept her famous 17-inch waist, what with her fiddle-dee-dee approach to her stressors. Not confronting the source of anxieties tends to leave them to fester. They then tiptoe out in other behaviors: We eat more salty or crunchy or sweet foods (and more mindlessly). Or we tipple more. Or hibernate from the world.

For the 99.9999999999 percent of caregivers who don't live on mythical plantations called Tara, action beats procrastination for less stress. What are the specific worries or fears that dog you most? Why do they upset you? Some will be things you can't do anything about ("How long can Mom hold on?"). But examining the whole gamut of them squarely is the first step to making them more real -- and therefore more manageable. And that's being kinder to yourself than any ol' potato chip bag can.

Trap: "Don't waste your breath on what you can't know."

Better: Talking, venting, sharing are breaths well spent.

Think of this as a corollary to the revised Scarlett O'Hara adage to "think about it today." Don't just think, talk. Out loud, on paper, by phone or over the Internet, whatever is most comfortable for you. The very process of giving voice to feelings helps make them real and understandable. It helps you own them and vanquish them.

You also gain a lot of great insights, either from what you hear yourself saying or what the listener might say back to you. Case in point: This Groups conversation about guilt over feeling anger toward parents, which has been going on for a year with equal parts venting and helping.

Trap: "This is my responsibility and I have to see it through, no matter what."

Better Vow to do the best you can.

Some of the most stressed caregivers are those who made a promise or family pact never to put Mom or Grandpa in a residential facility. Never is a huge word. Never can monopolize your life for years and cannibalize your own health, happiness, and well being.

I'm not saying that a nursing care situation is ideal or isn't. Every situation is different. I'm saying that you can't make a promise in a vacuum. Sometimes situations outrun us. Admitting this isn't admitting defeat. It's acknowledging you need a different strategy.

For most caregivers, the ultimate intention is to give the person we love respectful care and comfort. There are lots of ways to get there. You'll feel better if you can be as open-minded as you are open-hearted.