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A Geriatrician's Advice on Surviving Caregiving

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenJanuary 4, 2016

Caregiving is not for the weak of character or heart. The role can be both emotionally and physically draining.

As both a daughter and geriatrician affected by her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Cheryl Woodson provides valuable insight into how to survive the tough responsibility.

A Daughter and Doctor’s Experience Caregiving

Happy and well-rested caregivers are crucial to the job, but it is exhausting. Caregivers must balance caring for someone else and caring for themselves. Otherwise, they can experience burnout and develop serious health problems.

Dr. Cheryl Woodson provides a unique, insider perspective on how to survive caregiving:

“I walked the floor with mom at night. She was not the woman who raised me… I had been a doctor for many years, but did not fully understand the caregiver role and the toll it takes on you until I went through the experience. The effort and the heartache made me realize that the current system does not make the things easy, and having the geriatrics background along with the caregiving experience made me realize I could help caregivers in a unique way: families had poignant stories, but they could not tell you how to miss the landmines; sometimes, professional advice was too esoteric or impractical.”

In addition to being a doctor, Dr. Woodson is an educator whom national organizations ask to speak to caregivers affected by Alzheimer’s, other dementias, and the many diseases associated with aging. She discovered that ageism, denial, caregiver burnout and guilt were key themes for her audiences, so she decided to write a book that speaks to these common problems.

This interview is a sneak peek at the gems of wisdom you can expect from her new books, “To Survive Caregiving: A Daughter’s Experience, A Doctor’s Advice 2nd edition,” and “The Doctor is In: Answering Your Questions about How to Survive Caregiving.”

Surviving Caregiving, Even If You Don’t Think You Can

Dr. Woodson points out that nothing prepares you for your mom spending all her money on television infomercials and then asking you to pay her bills because she can no longer reason, or for feeling “widowed” because your husband is no longer himself, yet still desires intimacy.

“No one talks about this stuff,” notes Dr. Woodson. “It’s uncomfortable, emotional and hard to make sense of no matter who you are. People need a support system.”

Even though Dr. Woodson specialized in geriatrics, she struggled to navigate her own parent’s Alzheimer’s journey. “I want to bring information as both doctor and daughter to empower families to give excellent elder care without sacrificing their own health, finances or relationships,” she says.

Here are Dr. Woodson’s keys to surviving caregiving:

1. Don’t put your head in the sand.

Like an ostrich, if you put your head in the sand, you present a bigger target, Don’t ignore signs, or the concerns of friends, neighbors, and family members who suggest that your senior may have a problem. If you do, you might miss an opportunity to avoid an emergency, or help your senior before it’s too late. Ask your elder’s doctor to refer you for a geriatrics assessment, and find out if you need help.

2. Know when to take the “S” off your chest, or step away from the Kryptonite.

It’s important to remember that you are not “Supercaregiver” (nor do you need to be)! Many families try to do with one or two people what three shifts of trained nurses do in a hospital or long-term care facility. You do need help.

3. Know that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” won’t work!

It takes a village to support a senior, just as it does to raise a child. Tell people you need help.

4. Learn to take your hands off the steering wheel.

When others offer to help, don’t “major in the minor.”Unless the doctor says a specific medicine, food or schedule is critical, or you know a specific strategy works best, don’t hover or criticize. In other words, you shouldn’t care if your sister serves tuna salad instead of chicken salad, or puts Dad in the red shirt instead of the blue one.

If people don’t help you, ask yourself what you said to them the last time they tried. You might discover that you discourage people, so let people help.

5. Put your mask on first.

Follow the flight attendants’ lead. Dr. Woodson writes in her book:

“You cannot give care, supervise care, or advocate for anyone when you are afraid and uninformed, physically ill, financially strapped, emotionally exhausted, or spiritually bankrupt.”

Remember, you can’t take care of them if you don’t take care of you.

Understanding How to Get the Support You Need

Today, 60% of caregivers are unpaid women — usually family members, and caregiving will affect even more people as baby boomers age.

Dr. Woodson says, “The first goal of my book is to teach caregivers to erase their guilt because 21st century caregiving is not your mama’s caregiving. Never before in history have people taken care of parents and other seniors, children, and grandchildren at the same time.”

The introduction of “To Survive Caregiving” lists her other goals:

  • Encourage caregivers
  • Give you permission to take care of yourself
  • Provide the information you need to give excellent care without sacrificing your physical, financial, emotional, or spiritual health
  • Arm you with the tools you need to become an effective activist for causes that affect both seniors and other caregivers

So take heed of Dr. Woodson’s expert advice. Talk to your elderly loved one’s doctor about your options and, if you need more answers, seek a geriatrics specialist for an assessment. Recognize when there’s a problem and listen to those around you to be not only your loved one’s advocate, but also your own. Don’t sacrifice yourself. Get help. Dr. Woodson says:

“Nothing else matters when your mommy or daddy is sick. No matter who you are, when you grieve, you grieve like a child. They key is to educate yourself and get the help you need.”

For more information on Dr. Woodson and her books, view her website. Like her on Facebook and follow her blog “Straight Talk with Dr. Cheryl.” You can also read our Caregiver Toolkit to help you simplify your senior care journey.

About the Author

Dr. Woodson is a physician with more than 30 years’ experience teaching and practicing Adult and Geriatric Medicine. She has provided clinical consultation and leadership for professional education programs, health systems, managed care organizations, and public policy development in eldercare. She also raised a family and navigated her mother’s ten-year journey with Alzheimer’s disease. An informative, inspiring, and entertaining speaker whom the New York Times called “a blunt and funny woman,” Dr. Woodson shoots from the hip and from the heart, empowering caregivers, communities, and companies to serve seniors successfully. She also teaches all adults how to avoid the health challenges their seniors face and age excellently!

Do you have any questions for Dr. Woodson or others from our expert panel? Share them with us in the comments below.

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Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen
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