According to a study that was first published in the 1999 Journal of the American Medical Association, being a caregiver could put a person, in this case a parent of a child with special needs, at risk for the same psychological damage a soldier might find on the battle field—post traumatic stress disorder. That’s because researchers found that the physical symptoms of caregiver stress are a result of prolonged and elevated levels of stress hormones constantly being released into the body. This can be very damaging to the health of a caregiving parent.
Researchers Richard Schulz and Scott Beach from the University of Pittsburgh also reported in this study that caregivers are at a 63 percent higher risk of mortality than non-caregivers in the same age group. Australian Research Journalist, David M. Guia in his 2003 article on caregiver stress syndrome, reviewed data from medical databases worldwide and found the physical symptoms caregivers are at risk for include: an increase susceptibility to infection, slow wound healing, adrenal exhaustion, fatigue, insomnia and a whole list of other health issues.
Guia also cited that caregivers can become victims to emotional issues. Some of these included: anxiety, resentment, anger, helplessness, fear and despair.
The first step for a parent to take is to become aware of how they feel both physically and emotionally. This seems quite simple, but in the case of over-extended parents, thinking about themselves and checking in on their feelings is, quite frankly, not a familiar experience. It is, however, an important act of self-preservation.
The National Lekotek Center works with families and children with disabilities and provides support groups for many parents. They have developed a short list of ideas that often act as a preventive measure to ward off caregiver stress and fatigue and keep it from inflicting busy parents.
Here’s a few ways for parents to make sure they are in good physical and mental health so they can be there, in top form, for the children who need them so.
Your best efforts can vary every day. Sometimes parents can sail through the day and some days they deserve a bonus for just showing up. Accept the fact that your best efforts may vary and make that OK.
Don’t beat yourself up with a To-Do List. Many days things get thrown at you that you did not expect and you tackle each of those to the ground. At the end of the day, you may not have checked off many of the items you had on your to do list. Before you grade yourself, remember all the stuff you did that never made the list. And then grade yourself on a curve.
Ask for help. This is a big change from the caregiver’s paradigm of being the one giving, but is of critical importance. Practice makes perfect so set a goal to ask for help many times till it feels comfortable. Remember, people liked to be needed and you should share that feeling with family, friends, neighbors and others in your life.
Me-time is non-negotiable. That’s right! You don’t get upset at your car for needing gas. You know your garden needs sun and water. You as a caregiver need time to relax, refresh and restore yourself. Give up the guilt and think of it as a prescription for health—mental and physical.
Laughter and little breaks can make a big difference. Put silly, funny and humorous respites into your daily menu, if only a little at a time. Get a funny book, keep it around the house and read a few pages until you can garner a laugh or at least a smile. Close your eyes and breathe a little slower and a little deeper for a few minutes a day and check in with your body and your feelings. Read a poem or an inspirational quote. The soul needs food, too.
Parents of children with special needs must realize that they have needs too. Everything and everyone needs maintenance to be in top condition. You owe it to yourself and ultimately your child will appreciate it, too.