How to Survive as a Primary Caregiver

When we’re under stress as caregivers, it’s important to have outlets for relief and to periodically rejuvenate ourselves. Otherwise we do harm to ourselves and everyone around us.

Now, getting relief is more easily said than done. Sometimes there’s just no alternative but to buck up under the load. However, even a small gesture can often be tremendously beneficial. One of these assists that meant a great deal to me was offered by my sister Laura when I was the primary caregiver for my 93-year-old father.

Laura lived miles away and could not physically be there to help more than two or three times a year, but she allowed me to call her as often as I needed to and listened with a supportive ear to all my complaints. I referred to her then as “my priest, my shrink and my rock.”

Having an outlet to vent your frustrations, fears and anger can help dissipate the feeling that you are alone on an island with the family member you are caring for. I had that feeling about my Dad many times, but then I would call Laura, and I felt better.

As an artist, I found solace in my work, too, though often the caregiving interfered with my time to paint. When I could, however, I expressed my feelings through the painting process, turning pain into a visual statement that had intrinsic worth in itself. Writing in a journal every day helped, also, to give me a tiny bit of distance and perspective on what I was going through.

Any creative outlet can be soothing in a time of stress. Just the fact that it becomes totally absorbing helps take you out of your pressure-cooker situation. Whether you express yourself through art, music, dance, writing, knitting, cooking, gardening—anything that absorbs your attention and engages your senses—you’ll find relief and rejuvenation through the process.

One of the best ways to take a break is to actually go “off duty” for a week, a weekend, a day, or even a few hours. This is not always easy to arrange, and family members may not realize how important it is for you to get that opportunity. They can’t possibly understand what you are going through. You need to insist, however, that they make whatever effort is necessary to relieve you as often as possible.

If family or friends can’t help, and money is not an issue, there are 24-hour care providers who can relieve you. The important thing is to check references carefully so that you’ll be comfortable leaving. As caregivers, we often think that no one but us can do the job right.

I remember leaving the most detailed, anal-retentive list of instructions for my brothers to follow when I went away on vacation, and I worried that they wouldn’t do things right. My father was fine under their care, of course, but I worried about everything at first. Finally, as I stood on a beach in Santa Cruz watching the waves break, I felt a sense of freedom and relaxed.

Adult day-care centers are another option to explore. Often they will bus your loved one to and from the center for a few hours of supervised care and entertainment, giving you some measure of respite. Check your local Department of Aging for information on such programs. The local one in my town also keeps a list of volunteers who will go to your home and provide companionship for your loved one so that you can get a break.

Your first job as a caregiver is to take care of yourself. That’s often difficult to do, and an afterthought for many of us, but we need to make sure we survive and stay strong, in order to do the best job we can.


About The Author

Lynne Taetzsch is an artist and writer who became the primary caregiver for her father when he was 93 years old and had severe short-term memory loss. She is the author of The Bipolar Dementia Art Chronicles, a memoir about her experience which is available at She also writes a blog on Caregiving, Aging and Alzheimer’s at

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  • LAAAC is managed by St. Barnabas Senior Services; Funded, in part, by Archstone Foundation.
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