We can become caregivers suddenly, without warning — a husband is diagnosed with cancer, a child is in an accident or a parent has a stroke. Other times, caregiving creeps upon us — we notice mom is forgetting things so we slowly take on the task of more duties to help her manage and live independently.

However we become caregivers, it is often a shock and is always an emotionally draining experience. Often in the chaos that follows, with the reorientation of our schedules, the search for proper resources, the fears about the future and the everyday challenges, we rarely stop to think about the whole picture, taking into account our own health and well-being.

Somewhere along the line, though, it is vitally important that we do stop, take a breath and try to gain some control over the situation, rather than allowing the situation to control us. We must choose to take charge of our lives and believe in ourselves. Obviously we can’t control everything that happens to our loved ones or ourselves, but we can make choices about how we are going to deal with our new circumstances.

It is no secret that helping to care for a sick or dying loved one can exact a steep emotional toll. Caregiving is complicated and ever-changing, and most find their stress level is high. We can give ourselves permission to actively make choices and take the time to recognize our own strengths and limitations.

Being a loving caregiver doesn’t mean you need to give up boundaries. Caregiving is a relationship between many people. Believing in yourself helps you recognize that you are one of those people, and making choices in your own best interest is often the most important thing you can do for all concerned. It’s critical that you first take care of yourself. By not doing so, you put yourself at risk of exhaustion, health problems or even total burnout.

» Symptoms of burnout — hopelessness, exhaustion, isolation, frustration, despair, cynicism, apathy, anxiety, impatience, resentment, body aches, guilt and anger. These symptoms can occur subtly over several months. Guidance and counseling can often help during these stressful times.

» Common mistakes — arguing or yelling, speaking to the person as if to a child, asking a lot of direct questions that rely on good memory, taking over for the person, ordering the person around.

» Maintaining dignity and respect is key — Use finesse, don’t be afraid to use “white lies,” redirect the person, and use humor, affection and compassion.

» The caregiver’s best teacher is the person for whom you are caring.

The role of caregiver can be exhausting, isolating and sometimes overwhelming. As an MFT trainee/intern at the Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara County, I have been focusing my counseling work primarily on seniors and caregivers. For those who find themselves in the role of caring for the chronically ill or disabled, taking time for self-care is vital.

My work with this population has been inspiring and heartwarming. By providing a safe space within which caregivers may vent, laugh, cry and process, we hope to prevent burnout and promote well-being for this growing part of our community. Click here for caregiver supportive services through the Family Service Agency.

Since 1899, the Family Service Agency has been working in the community to provide hope, strength and stability to those who need it most. Our mission is to strengthen and advocate for families and individuals of all ages and diversities, helping to create and preserve a healthy community. Through counseling, case management, information and referral, advocacy and mentoring, our programs give children, families, and seniors a hand up to success and self-sufficiency.

Services are offered countywide with offices in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria, and programs in the community as well as on school sites. Our services are offered on a sliding scale or for free thanks to generous individuals, foundations, businesses and corporations. Click here for more information or to donate, or call 805.965.1001.

— Christine Beasley, MA, is a senior mental health counselor for the Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara County.