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Building Family Caregiver Resilience: Social Strategies for Family Caregivers

As we enter the holiday season, we’re reminded of how family and friends brighten our lives. Their love and presence amplifies our joy during happy times. Their support eases our burden when life is difficult.

When I think of support I think of my sister, Wendy. Neither of us would have survived Mom’s long decline through dementia without our bond. Wendy cared for Mom in Chicago, doing all the difficult work. Living in Philadelphia, the most I could do was consistently offer support to Wendy. I encouraged her, listened to her, thanked her, and praised her for all she did that, because of distance, I couldn’t do. Periodically, I went to be with Mom and gave Wendy respite. We laughed, cried, complained and commiserated. We were “there for each other” through it all.

In contrast, I recall reaching out, but not receiving support from my friend, Linda. When Mom no longer could speak or recognize me, when she’d wasted away to 80 pounds and I’d become depressed, I wanted Linda to understand. I wanted to show her a recent picture of Mom, but she refused to look. I was stunned. I put the photo away, hurt and angry that she wouldn’t look. I desperately wanted Linda to “stand with me” in witnessing my loss of Mom to dementia. I felt abandoned by my friend. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone.

How about you? As you walk your caregiving journey, are you lonely or in need of support? Do you have family or friends who are with you through all your ups and downs? The caregiving experience showed me the importance of cultivating connections with people who would sustain me through tough times.

Forty years ago, Barbra Streisand first sang “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” If you haven’t heard it recently,listen and feel the power of connections.

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Social Support Build Resilience

Social support refers to providing informational, emotional, or tangible, “hands-on” help. Researchers have demonstrated that social support builds resilience when it helps people face difficult situations, or promotes the use of healthy behaviors.

In Resilience, Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney (2012) report on multiple studies that describe the benefits of strong, positive relationships. Connecting with others relieves stress, improves physical health and prolongs life. Good support from others also enhances emotional well-being and protects against depression.

Many caregiving studies have shown that social support relieves caregivers’ stress and burden. Higher levels of support; satisfaction with that support; and lower levels of negative interactions, are associated with better caregiver adjustment. Poorer social support is linked with poorer caregiver health

Practical Ways to Connect and Build Resilience

Knowing the power of social support, try these strategies to connect with others and build your resilience.

Connect to help and support

Ask for and be open to receiving help. Even if you dislike doing it, ask others to help with tasks, give advice, share contacts or simply listen. Caregiving is too big a job to handle on your own.

If you’re overwhelmed, or simply very busy, reach out for help. Name your needs and people who might be willing to help. 

And check-out these two great websites:

  • Lotsa Helping Hands is a free, online community that offers tools that help caregivers connect with volunteers who want to offer support. For a 30 second overview go here.
  • Share the Care is a practical, step-by-step model for creating a “caregiving group” who will come together to support someone facing a health or aging crisis. Proven effective and available as a paperback, these guidelines are easy to replicate and eliminate the need to reinvent the wheel.

Connect to understanding and empathy
Reach out when you’re lonely or sad. Don’t withdraw into your own world. Even if it’s hard, connect to others via phone calls, emails, notes or friendly visits. Meet a friend for coffee or to take a walk together. Even brief, informal exchanges with others can give you positive energy.When reaching out, stretch beyond your immediate circle of family and friends. Online caregiver organizations, condition-related organizations and faith communities are places where you can connect with people who understand and support caregivers.

Join a support group. If you have mixed feelings about joining, know that you’re not alone! Noted psychologist, Barry Jacobs describes groups that work, and why some aren’t so successful. But he is clear that, “all family caregivers can benefit from talking with others in similar situations.”

There is an abundance of online support for caregivers. Google “support groups for caregivers” or follow these links:

Connect to hope and inspiration

Resilient people gain strength and hope from imitating their role models (Southwick and Charney, 2012). Think of people who have successfully handled challenges like you’re struggling with. They may be real folks you know or who you’ve only heard about; people who are alive or dead; fictional characters from a movie or book; historic figures or famous people from any walk of life. Identify qualities or specific behaviors that helped them get through, or that yielded the outcome you desire. Then, replicate that behavior.

As an example, the story of how Vietnam POW’s survived three years in solitary confinement may inspire you. It reveals the power of human connection and our capacity to survive adversity. In this video you’ll see how their “tap code” connected them and sustained their lives. Have confidence in your resilience. Remember that all things pass away…including difficult times. Think of how the “tap code” helped the POW’s. Imitate them by finding ways to communicate and connect with others.

Social Strategies for Resilient Caregivers

Reaching out and connecting with others isn’t complicated, but it can be difficult to do. Fatigue, depression, busy-ness, embarrassment and resentment are just a few things that block caregivers from connecting with others. Don’t let barriers like these hinder you from receiving life-giving support.