Overwhelmed by Caregiver Stress? Here’s How Humor Can Heal

Photographer: Joel Benjamin; Makeup: Janeen Jones; Fashion: Dianna Bedrosian

Be inspired by one woman’s story of overcoming caregiver guilt with the power of laughter

Balancing the role of being a caregiver with a busy life leaves many of us feeling overwhelmed and guilt-ridden. How to deal with such caregiver stress? Having a good laugh isn’t always top of mind, but research shows that finding glimmers of levity, even at the toughest times, can boost resilience, decrease anxiety and bring us closer to those we’re caring for. 

“Unlike other stress-relieving strategies, like hitting the gym, humor doesn’t take energy or effort, which is why it’s a beautiful coping mechanism,” says Allison J. Applebaum, PhD, Founding Director of the Caregivers Clinic at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

While it may sound counterintuitive, one of the best ways to reap the benefits of “funny bone medicine” is through dark humor. “Caregivers have told me it tends to soften the ‘ick’ feeling when they’re doing unpleasant tasks,” says Applebaum. “For example, my dad and I found ourselves laughing when I had to change his diaper — we laughed at the absurdity of doing something that felt out of the natural order of life.”

To invite healing humor into your life, she suggests being very intentional: “Make it a point to ask friends to send you funny memes or videos regularly as your responsibilities mount. Humor doesn’t negate suffering, but it can help us connect with others, find meaning and see each precious moment.” For more inspiration, keep reading to learn how one woman uses humor and precious moments to deal with her caregiver stress.

“How laughter eases my caregiver stress”

Charlene Bazarian-Fruehauf let out a deep sigh. I wish I could clone myself, the 58-year-old attorney thought as she tried, yet again, to figure out how to be two places at once. Torn between attending one of her son’s band concerts and staying home with her mother — who prefers Charlene be with her whenever possible — because her mom’s health makes it impossible for her to accompany the family, leaves Charlene destined to disappoint someone.

“Being my mom’s primary caregiver for the past 20 years has impacted almost every aspect of my life,” Charlene shares. “At first, I was simply a helping hand, there to make sure she wasn’t lonely or that she didn’t trip on a rug. But a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago changed my caregiving responsibilities, frequently pulling me in many directions at once.”

“As her disease progresses, it’s challenging when there are events for one of my boys and my mom isn’t able to understand her physical limitations, instead thinking she’s able to walk further than she can or not understanding her memory issues mean she can’t stay home alone,” Charlene says. “Because she prefers that I’m the one on hand at all times, rather than other family members or paid caregivers, it’s challenging for me to meet my other responsibilities at work and as a mom.”

Courtesy of Charlene Bazarian-Fruehauf

The challenges of caregiver stress

“It really tugs at my heart because instead of saying ‘have a good time,’ my mom says, ‘Why can’t I go, too?’ or ‘Why do you have to go?’” says Charlene. “So if I do head off to a school play, or my son’s concert band performance I’m guilt-ridden for leaving her, then feel guilty that I’m not looking forward to the outing.”

She continues, “Regret teams with my guilt because of the numerous times we didn’t take family vacations like the annual rite of passage to Disney when the boys were younger, or instead of taking a family hike or day at the beach, we spend an afternoon going to the mall because that’s something we can do with my mom.”

“But when I find myself teetering on throwing a pity party for one, I remind myself that it won’t always be this way,” says Charlene. “Instead of wishing away daylight to finally be able to relax and crawl into bed at night, I reflect on how I wish I could freeze time as my sons are growing up and my mom just celebrated her 90th birthday. We won’t all be under one big roof forever and no matter how many balls I’m juggling today, I’m sure to miss them when they’re no longer up in the air.”

Photo Courtesy of Joel Benjamin

Truly the best medicine

“I have adopted the motto ‘Do what you can, when you can’ prepping as much as I can the night before — set the coffee maker, prep my mom’s pills, set the table — to make the next day less stressful,” says Charlene.

“Accepting help is invaluable. Since I can no longer leave my mom alone if I have appointments, or want to take a break for a manicure or coffee with a friend, I focus on the importance of self-care and rely on my aunt when she offers help and utilize elder companion care services a few hours a week.”

Courtesy of Charlene Bazarian-Fruehauf

“But I have found that the best medicine to prevent a case of ‘why me’ or feeling guilty when you realize no one can do it all is laughter. To keep my cool, or keep from getting sad witnessing my mom’s decline, I rely on humor,” Charlene says.

“I make jokes when I wash, dye, and blow dry her hair that I should have gone to beauty school. She’ll often respond that I missed my calling, which depending on what I am doing, could have been a nurse, hairdresser, or standup comedian when I’m making silly faces or using silly voices.”

“On days when she doesn’t want to get out of bed, I distract her with a funny story to take her mind off aches and pain and keep my mood light. When the weather cooperates, I’ll take her on my walk, pushing her wheelchair and telling funny stories or cracking jokes to enjoy a few moments of genuine joy together. Even my kids have joined in the fun of getting her to smile with impressions, funny stories and jokes. It’s not always fast or easy, but we make taking long walks work. The effort is worth it because no matter how much work or sacrifice is involved, I know I won’t feel any relief at all when she is gone,” Charlene says.

Courtesy of Charlene Bazarian-Fruehauf

“When I find myself missing the mom I once had, I reflect on laughs we’ve shared together and turning the focus to the good times and moments her face lights up in the middle of a joke. I joke to her that I think I am starring in my own reality sitcom but I’m the only one that doesn’t know.”

“Sometimes she will randomly share a story I hadn’t heard before, or reminisce about when she was dating my dad, which means so much,” Charlene adds. “Those little moments remind me that no matter what, we love each other. The little bonding moments of laughter and happiness provide vital emotional energy to sustain me as I keep on juggling.”

Photo Courtesy of Joel Benjamin

This article was posted in First For Women Magazine: