Tips for Caregivers with Chronic Illnesses of their Own

Tips for Caregivers with Chronic Illnesses of their Own

When the average person thinks about caregivers, they often think of a middle-aged woman (61% of family caregivers are female) who is rather tired from all the caregiving duties but still finds time to handle household chores and anything else thrown her way.1 She’s in good health, capable, and strong in mind and body. She might get overwhelmed sometimes, but for the most part, she’s got it all handled.

What most people don’t think about is the possibility that the person who is caring for their elderly parents might be dealing with chronic illness of their own.

Adult children of elderly parents aren’t always in perfect health. As we age, chronic conditions begin to take a toll on our bodies and minds. The National Council on Aging reports that 95% of adults over the age of 65 have at least one chronic condition, and almost 80% have two or more.2 According to the CDC, 60% of adults in the United States have a chronic illness, and 40% have two or more.3 This can include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, lupus, epilepsy, and more. It’s easy to see how many middle aged caregivers might be managing their own chronic conditions, as well as those of their senior parents.

Some issues might be much more serious than others. For instance, some of us have high blood pressure that requires taking a pill every day and that’s enough to keep it under control. But those are the luckier among us. Heart disease and diabetes can lead to more challenges as time goes on and they take a toll on the body. Some conditions, like Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, have a natural progression that can take away more and more of one’s ability to care for others. 

The Unique Challenges of Caregivers with Chronic Illnesses of their Own

Dealing with a chronic illness brings unique challenges and frustrations of its own. Add in caring for someone else and the challenges can increase exponentially.

You might face physical limitations that you didn’t worry about before. Your strength might falter, making it difficult to help your aging parent with mobility issues. Maybe you used to be able to help them transfer from a bed to a wheelchair with ease, but now that task requires all of your energy.

You might be on medications that lead to fatigue or even brain fog, which makes it hard to remember when your parent should take their medications – or when you should take yours!

You might also suffer under a heavy weight of guilt. Your elderly parent is now depending upon you, but you’re having struggles of your own. That concern can easily lead to anxiety and even depression, which further hinders your ability to care for your senior parent and for yourself.

And then there may be time management issues in that sometimes, you don’t know when the symptoms of your particular illness are going to hit. Someone with lupus, for instance, might never know when a flare is going to come. When it comes, it can bring physical discomfort, intense fatigue, and many other symptoms that seem to show up at random. But when they do show up, they can interfere with daily life and your ability to care for others.

Severe arthritis can flare just as easily with little warning, making it harder to open medication bottles or help your parent get dressed. You might not be able to help them much at all until your own medications kick in to ease the pain and stiffness in your joints.

The good news is that there are solutions that can make life much easier for everyone.

Caring for Yourself When You’re the Caregiver

Caregivers are often pulled in more than one direction. That’s especially true of those who fall into the Sandwich Generation – those who are caring for an elderly parent while also caring for children or even grandchildren. Even if you aren’t stuck in the middle, you can still have so many responsibilities that it can seem impossible to find time for yourself.

But when you have a chronic illness, finding that time for yourself could mean the difference between staying healthy and becoming so sick that you can’t provide effective care for anyone, not even yourself.

How do you find that time to care for yourself? Here are some solutions that can make life easier.

Protect yourself. There might be times when you simply can’t do what your parent needs you to do. For instance, someone who has cancer is likely immunosuppressed, which means they need to avoid others who are sick. That might rule out taking your parent to the doctor’s office for their appointments. Enlist the help of others who can make the trip for you. If you don’t have family who can help, you might need to hire a professional caregiver for those times when you must protect your own health.

Get organized. Suffering from brain fog is no joke. Even if you don’t deal with that on a daily basis right now, you might if your medications change or if you face unexpected health problems. Getting organized means keeping a binder filled with information on your parent’s conditions, their medication schedule, their health care contacts, and other important information. It’s a good idea to start a binder of your own that focuses on your conditions too.

Make medication dosing easier. Even someone who isn’t dealing with any health issues at all can have trouble keeping a lot of medications straight. A medication reminder, organizer, and dispenser can be an incredibly valuable tool. Simply load the device with the proper medications and set the timers. Keep a handwritten list of medications, dosages, and times on hand as well, so you’ll have the information right there for reference.  

Take care of your health. You know how important it is for your parent to take their medications, visit the doctor, and otherwise keep up with their health issues and treatments. The same holds true for you! Keep your doctor’s appointments, take all your medications as directed, and stay up-to-date on your labs and other tests. This allows you to be proactive and catch additional health problems before they can become serious issues.

Set boundaries. Though it can be tough to do that, you absolutely must to protect your own health and well-being. Now is the time to start spreading the caregiving duties among family members who are available to help. Learn to say “no” to prevent from becoming overwhelmed. If you’re the one who always helps others, now is the time to recognize that you’re the one who needs help!

Focus on self-care. It’s important for any caregiver to have some down time, but it becomes even more important when you’re dealing with a chronic illness. Not only do you need a physical break, you probably need emotional and mental breaks too. This might mean quiet time for yourself early in the morning before anyone else is up. It might mean stepping outside for fresh air while your parent is napping. It could be zoning out in front of a movie or taking a day away to head to your favorite place and simply breathe. Create a self-care routine and do it without any guilt. You need to recharge and refresh in order to be at your best.

Lessen your risk of other health challenges. Now is a good time to look into medical alert systems with fall detection. Not only does a medical alarm allow you to press the button to call for help at a moment’s notice, it also has a built-in fall detection sensor. With fall detection, you don’t even have to press the button if the device senses a fall. This can provide strong peace of mind that if you do fall, help will be on the way immediately. It’s also a good idea to get one of these personal emergency response systems for your parent as well.

Turn to professional help. Delegate some of your regular tasks to others by hiring professionals to do the work for you. You could start using a grocery delivery or pick up service so you can order online whenever it is convenient instead of walking through the busy store. You could hire someone to clean the house every few weeks instead of doing it all yourself. Consider hiring a driver to get you and your parent to and from appointments. Hire a neighborhood kid to do the yard work. Free up your time and energy to focus on you and your elderly parent if you can.

Find respite care. Respite care can be a true blessing when you are dealing with much of the caregiving work on your own. This can take the form of a person who comes to sit with your parent while you take a few hours away, an adult day care program where your elderly parent will be safe for the day while you take a much-deserved rest, or even overnight help that allows you to get a good night’s sleep.

Find strong support. Look for those who are in the same situation you’re in. Support groups for caregivers can help, but so can support groups dedicated to chronic conditions, such as a cancer group that meets at the local hospital or a group for those with Parkinson’s disease that meets via Zoom every week. Ask your doctor for help in finding the right group for you. And join more than one if it helps you!

Take good care of yourself. Caregivers often let their own needs slide. That’s not good for anyone, but if you have a chronic condition, it can actually become dangerous for you. Make sure to maintain a healthy diet, get the exercise you need, and make good sleep habits a priority. Visit your doctor regularly and take all your medications as directed. Take care of your mental and emotional health as well; make the time to see a counselor if you need to. You can even do counseling sessions online from the comfort of your couch.

Have a backup plan. What happens if you suffer a serious emergency or injury and can’t be there for your parent for a while? A senior life-saving alert system is always a good idea for anyone with chronic conditions or anyone utilizing the help of a caregiver. Having a backup plan can provide peace of mind.

Know when it’s time to change the arrangement. Take your time in researching home health care agencies, long-term care facilities, and assisted living options. Though you might not want to think about these as possibilities for your elderly parent, it is a good idea to have a Plan B in place. If you reach the point of being unable to adequately care for your elderly parent and for yourself, it’s time to consider a different caregiving arrangement.

Caregiving is a beautiful endeavor that will often bring you a great sense of reward. But there’s no denying it can be a very challenging journey that can be complicated if the family caregiver is managing chronic illness of their own. Alert1 wishes you and your family peace, comfort, and safety.