Caring for Caregivers

Those who give of themselves selflessly need care as well

By Julie Halm

Few responsibilities take the immense toll that comes with being a caregiver to a loved one.

Whether a traumatic injury or progressive illness brings about the necessity, being a caregiver can prove to be physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausting. Navigating the medical system is often frustrating and all too often, the job as a whole is a thankless task.

Caregivers can sometimes lose sight of their own needs in the process of caring for someone else, but maintaining healthy habits is critical to remaining up to the challenge.

There are two ways in which people tend to become caregivers, according to Ronald Pokorski, a caregiver advocate for Venture Forthe Inc. and instructor of Powerful Tools for Caregivers. Sometimes, a sudden event such as a stroke or car accident can throw an individual into a care-giving role. In other instances, the gradual progression of a chronic condition leads to the necessity for a caregiver.

For the former, the sudden demand and adjustment can be a major challenge and for the latter, the decision of when to seek professional help can be overwhelming, according to Pokorski.

Regardless of the circumstance, there are some important tenets for all caregivers to live by.

“I always tell caregivers that they had better take care of themselves or the whole thing will fall apart, as they hold the key to their loved one’s wellbeing,” said Pokorski.

Pokorski has been a caregiver to his wife for the past 16 years following a stroke which left her without the ability to speak, read or write, blind in one eye and paralyzed on her right side. That experience has taught him a great deal as well.

“As a caregiver for 16 years, the things I do differently now are that I ask for help and if and when it is offered, I always accept,” he said. “I don’t think of myself anymore as the only one that can look after my wife and realize that as long as she is safe, it’s OK if things aren’t done ‘just right’.”

Erie County Senior Services offers plenty of advice on how to stay well throughout the process of offering care to a loved one. A common thread among those tips is the notion that life must go on outside of the confines of care giving.

Isolation can often be a threat for those in this position, but should be avoided by taking time out to talk to friends, pursue a hobby or simply going out and seeing a movie.

“Remember, you are not alone, keep social ties,” suggests the county’s website. “Try your best to entertain friends.”

If possible, scheduling respite care can provide a much-needed break.

Frustration abounds

No matter how much a person loves their family member, the reality is that performing this role can be frustrating. Certain medical circumstances, like Alzheimer’s or dementia, can often exacerbate these feelings.

“Acknowledge your right to feel angry and then do something to get rid of this anger,” says the Senior Services website. “Punch a pillow, saw wood, smash tennis balls or scrub floors. Do not lash out at the patient since it will only make the situation worse.”

Sometimes, above all else, it’s best to just slow down, according to Ronald Fernandez, a licensed mental health counselor and director of Headway of Western New York, which provides people with brain injuries, other disabilities, and seniors with resources, support systems and advocacy.

Fernandez said while many things may feel urgent, very few situations are bona fide emergencies and it is always better not to make any major decisions in a rushed state of mind unless absolutely necessary.

Pre-planning with a loved one who is aging or diagnosed with a progressive disorder can help reduce the likelihood of caregivers having to make serious decisions on their own or in the heat of a moment.

While one can take steps to prepare, such as assigning power of attorney or discussing potential medical situations preemptively, fulfilling all of the roles encompassed by a caregiver will eventually become hectic and chaotic.

When it does, Fernandez suggests taking time out to do things such as meditate or participate in a support group, if only just for short periods of time.
“Even just 10 minutes in your car, listening to music you really like can help,” he said.

Healing and care for those who have acted in this type of role doesn’t stop at the end of the patient’s life.

Shauna Van Velson volunteers her time as the organizer of a peer-led support group for those who have lost a sibling. While some attendees lost their brother or sister suddenly, others were caregivers over a long duration of time.

Van Velson says that going to counseling or participating in a support group once a loved one is gone can help a caregiver process what they’ve been through and begin to heal.

“I think that being involved in a support group and being able to rely on people who are in the same situation can be helpful,” said Van Velson. “I think that’s probably one of the biggest ways to heal, is just to talk through your experience and what has happened.”

Van Velson’s support group meets from 6:30-8 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month at the Wilson Support Center, 150 Bennett Road, Cheektowaga.

For more tips, information and resources regarding caregiving, visit Erie County’s Senior Services website at

For more information on Headway of Western New York, visit