by David Rintell, Ed.D., Psychologist & Can Do MS Programs Consultant
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Being a support person to someone with MS often involves many challenges, but can also be enormously rewarding. One of the most significant challenges is to take care of oneself, and meet one’s own needs, while at the same time helping to support and care for a loved one. But we know that if you do not take care of yourself, you may become unable to provide support to the people you love.
Part of increasing the caring for oneself is to recognize some of the pitfalls and obstacles which reduce the effectiveness and overall functioning of support partners. These obstacles include:
- Depression – do you feel down or blue a good part of the time? Is your interest in or pleasure experienced in activities reduced? If your answer is yes to either of these questions, you might be depressed, and you should discuss this with your primary care doctor or other healthcare provider promptly. Support partners are more likely to experience depression then other people, but depression is usually very treatable.
- Isolation – Caring for another often results in becoming cut off from your friends and important sources of personal support. Remember to keep in touch with friends and relatives, and see them when you can. Support groups, religious services, and outside activities can help reduce isolation.
- Anger – It is normal to feel anger during a challenging situation, and since it’s hard to express anger to MS itself, we often take our anger out on those closest to us. While it is understandable to feel angry, we do need to think about how to express it to not make a problem bigger.
- Anonymity – One member of the MS support partner’s support group which I facilitate spoke of her experience as being almost invisible to others. She found that although she is married she doesn’t feel like she fits in with other married couples, yet nor does she relate the same way to single people. She finds that most people do not “get” her life. And if they ask, they ask how her husband (with MS) is, but don’t ask how she is doing.
- Burn-out – Burn-out is a major risk for people who provide care and support to their loved ones. We all have our limits, and sometimes we find that we have gone beyond our limits and we are not functioning well. The following are some ways of preventing and reducing burn-out.
- Take care of your own health: Pay attention to rest, diet, sleep, and your own medical care
- Work on becoming more comfortable asking for and accepting help.
- Practice self-care, through relaxation, exercise, music, or whatever works for you
- Try being open to spirituality – A spiritual practice, whether it involves an organized religion or not, can bring great comfort and a feeling of connection and well-being.
- Make sure that you arrange time to see your friends and relatives. This might be complicated, but it is well worth it. Social support promotes health.
- Find a way to enjoy time with the person for whom you are caring. Make sure it’s not all about caregiving, but it’s also about maintaining a positive relationship. Find some activities that are fun to do together.
Most people who care for and support loved ones report that they find the experience to be rewarding, and it gives them the opportunity to express the love, loyalty, and respect for the person for whom they care. They also tell us that there are many difficult moments, and that then can use help from others. This help might be a listening ear, a couple of hours to give them time to have their hair done or the car fixed, or a phone call to find out how they are doing. If you are caring for a loved one, and you feel burnt out, your health is beginning to suffer, or you find yourself feeling down or angry a good part of the time, please speak with your health care provider, your minister, and/or your friends, and ask for help and support for yourself.