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Caregiving Defined

By Dave Balch

It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, whether it’s clearing snow from the porch or running a marathon, it is always a good idea to know the primary, overriding objective of the task. Why? Because keeping the main objective in mind may alter the way you actually perform the task. Are you trying to make the porch look nice or are you trying to keep the snow from tracking into the house on people’s shoes? Are you running the marathon to improve your health or to win?

“What difference does it make?” you ask. Maybe a huge difference, maybe not. If you are merely trying to keep snow from tracking into the house, simply clearing the path to the door may be enough. Why go to all the extra work of clearing the entire porch when it isn’t necessary to achieve the objective? If you are running simply to improve your health, you don’t have to run as fast; in fact, slower may actually be better!

The same is true of caregiving. We caregivers have way too much to do, and way too much stress and pressure to do it all. What is it all about, anyway? How can we take off a little of the pressure? How can we make our jobs a little easier? When you boil it down to the very basics, the single most important task of caregiving, in my opinion; in fact its very definition, is to “reduce stress” on the patient. Period. Everything we do should be based around that simple concept. I try to keep that in mind every day, and it helps guide my thinking and my activities.

Here’s the tricky part: every patient is different, so reducing stress may be different for your patient than mine. I wanted to do all the scheduling and driving in order to make it easier for my wife, and she loved the fact that she didn’t have to worry about it! I was reducing her stress, so I was doing my job.

On the other side of the issue, I recently spoke to a man whose wife was going through breast cancer treatment and she wanted to do everything herself; she didn’t even want him to go with her to treatments or appointments. If he had insisted on doing it all and going with her as I did with my wife, that would have INCREASED her stress rather than reducing it.

The second point, then, is to concentrate on things that actually stress your patient rather than the things that you THINK stress your patient or that SHOULD stress your patient. This is about them, not about you.

Some people find it very stressful to talk about their situation with others and to hear the inevitable comments such as: “I’m so sorry” or “What can I do to help?” or “Here’s what happened to my friend…” or “I knew someone that was in your situation and they died.” (Really, people say things like that!) Others find it comforting to talk about it and the more they talk the better they feel. What should you do? Should you take over the responsibility to communicate with family and friends or let your patient do it? The answer is: it depends. If your patient finds it stressful then you should do it, end of discussion. What if YOU find it stressful? Do it anyway.

This brings up point number three: sometimes you’ve got to do things you don’t like to do in the name of reducing stress on your patient. Do them anyway, because when all is said and done you will feel a sense of pride and accomplishment and, more importantly, you will have succeeded in reducing your patient’s stress.

We do have to take care of ourselves, though, so taking on a task that is too stressful could be difficult to bear considering all of our other responsibilities. There is an option: find another way to do it by either changing your method or finding help.

Point number four, then, is that taking responsibility for tasks that are stressful for your patient is different than actually doing them yourself. If you need or want help, get it. If you find an alternative way of doing something that makes it less stressful for YOU, do it that way. Remember the primary objective: reduce stress on your patient. That doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything yourself, but rather finding a way to get stressful things done so that your patient doesn’t have to do them.

This is the power of keeping the ultimate objective in mind – it can change the way you think about things and how you go about doing them.

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