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Are You A Caregiver Who Cares Too Much?

As an Alzheimer’s caregiver, I know there is a fine line between providing good care for a loved one and sacrificing your life to help someone else.

In 2011, I left Los Angeles, my home of 33 years, and moved across the country to care for my mother, who was in the moderate stages of dementia.  Overnight my independent life was gone.  My days and nights revolved around my mom’s growing needs.

Mom, once highly capable and stubbornly independent, now required help with daily tasks like grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, housekeeping and personal hygiene.  Although she could no longer pay her bills, Mom wouldn’t let me help her with her finances.  She was convinced that that people – including me – were stealing from her.   She’d also begun to get her days and nights mixed up, waking at 2 a.m. to get ready for a doctor’s appointment and then refusing to go back to bed.

Sprinting from crisis to crisis, I was surviving on too little sleep, too much coffee, and not enough self-care.

Without any family close by to fall back on, I shouldered everything and rebuffed the idea of hiring a helper or asking friends for assistance.

Although I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, caregiving had consumed my life.

I felt alone, but I wasn’t.  As our population continues to age, there are more and more people like me who are stepping in to provide unpaid care.

A 2015 study compiled by AARP estimates over 43 million adults in the U.S. have provided unpaid care in the prior 12 months, and on average, the caregiving consumed 24 hours a week.  Almost 60% of the care recipients had a long-term physical condition and a 25% of the care recipients had memory problems.

Eventually, I ended up in my doctor’s office, complaining about a constant, dull pain in my abdomen, a nagging headache and the inability to get a good night’s sleep.

While the battery of tests showed nothing was physically wrong, I still had the symptoms.  My physician advised me to take more time for myself and let go of the stress.

I nodded in agreement, but inside I was thinking, “Easier said than done.”

However, deep down I knew something had to change.

Slowly I came to the realization that it is indeed possible to care too much.

If I became sick, then there would be no one to take care of my mother.  This was the  turning point.  With the help of some family members and a support group, I was able to strike a better caregiving balance.

First, I came to terms with the fact that I could not cure my mom.  Her Alzheimer’s disease was progressing, and my goal must focus on making her life a bit better.  Over time, I was also able to give up on my quest for caregiving perfection, an impossible goal.  My new mantra became ‘good enough is good enough.’

My caregiving experience taught me that it is extremely difficult to see your situation clearly when you are in the midst of providing care.

While I thought my extreme dedication was a sign of being a good daughter, this intense level of involvement and sacrifice was impossible to sustain.  Not only could I not sustain it, but I was experiencing real health problems of my own.

Here’s a list of caregiver warning signs that might apply to you or someone you know.

  • Refusing to take a break or share caregiving duties
  • Believing no one else can provide care for your loved one
  • Neglect of physical appearance
  • Insomnia and/or constant fatigue that doesn’t go away, even with adequate sleep
  • Isolation or a pulling away from family and friends
  • Crying easily, losing patience and feeling unappreciated
  • Having feelings of resentment, hopelessness, and dread
  • Experiencing resentment toward the person under your care

My advice is to remember that caregiving is usually a marathon, not a sprint.  You must pace yourself for the long distance which means conserving energy and making smart choices.

Also, ask yourself this important question: “Would my loved one want me to completely give up my own life to care for him or her at the expense of my own mental and physical wellbeing?”

The answer, of course, is no.

Nancy Wurtzel, a frequent thirdAge contributor, is the editor of the blog www.DatingDementia.com.