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How can you help a caregiver?

Giving a caregiver a break from their daily duties can improve their quality of life significantly

Parinita is suffering from drug-resistant schizophrenia. Her husband left her as her mental illness was kept under wraps at the time of wedding. Parinita's mother, who works in a garment factory, is her primary and only caregiver. However, if Parinita's mother accompanies Parinita for her routine check ups, she loses her day's wages. Shyamala, a friend of the family, takes over the responsibility and takes Parinita for her routine check ups. Shyamala has helped Parinitha secure a disability certificate. She also handles the legal hassles related to Parinita's divorce.

(This is a real-life case study narrated by a mental health professional. Names have been changed to protect privacy)

This case explains how a friend is helping a caregiver attend to her duties and share the burden of caregiving. Unfortunately, not everyone gets extra help like Parinita's mother does. Caregivers often juggle several tasks. In addition to caring for the person with mental illness, they work or study, manage the household tasks, and care for the needs of the entire family, among other things. Due to these additional duties, they end up spending most of their time caring for others, and little time on caring for themselves. This, over time, can cause caregiver stress. To cope with this situation, the caregiver can take the help of their immediate family, friends and relatives.

Help from family members  

In traditional joint families, a caregiver gets help from other members to care for the person with mental illness. With urbanization, the size of a family has shrunk; nuclear families often lead isolated lives. This puts more pressure on the caregiver as they have little help. In such cases, the family members, even in nuclear families, could pitch in to share the burden of the primary caregiver. 

For example, if a family has a mother, father, daughter and a teenage son with mental illness, and the mother takes up the role of the primary caregiver, the other members of the family (in this case, the father and the daughter) may not take up any caregiving duties. Over time, it can become stressful for the mother. Therefore, sensitization should begin from the family of the person with a mental illness. In such cases, the other members of the family could learn about the illness and offer to share caregiving duties based on chores or time (I'll take care of him in the morning, you can do it in the afternoon).

Helping as a distant relative or friend

If you have a relative or a friend who is a caregiver, you can help them in various ways:           

  • Help them get transitional employment: People with serious mental disorders like bipolar disorder, may have long gaps in their employment life. This is when the family members can step in and look for job opportunities for the person with illness, thereby helping the caregiver indirectly.
  • for mental illness: Being empathetic to the caregiver of person with illness helps them feel part of the community. This will reduce isolation and help fight stigma against mental illness in the long run. “People are very empathetic to persons with visual challenges, because their disability is visible. Since mental illnesses are invisible and are to do with change in behavior, there is a general perception that behavior can be controlled. Hence, people have less empathy towards mental illness. This will improve when they become aware that mental illness is a serious illness and can be treated,” says Dr Krishna Prasad, associate professor, NIMHANS.
  • Accompany them on hospital visits: If you have time, you can accompany the patient for hospital visits. This will help easing the caregiver burden to some extent.
  • Listen to them: Be a non-judgmental listener to the caregiver. This helps them ventilate and can be therapeutic for them.
  • Talk about topics other than the illness: Though having a mental illness can be incredibly taxing to the patient and their caregiver, avoid talking to the caregiver about that subject alone. Have conversations with them as you would with any other person. “I will gossip with my friend like always, I will invite them to my kid's birthday parties, I will go out shopping with them... this will make the person and their caregiver feel socially-included and less burdened,” says Dr Aarti Jagannathan, assistant professor, NIMHANS.

Though you may be busy with your own life and activities, it can help if you give some time to your friend or relative who is a caregiver, in ways big or small, to ease their caregiving responsibilities.