An underestimated aspect of the devastating effects of stroke is the impact it has on the family caregiver of a stroke survivor. As much as 80% of the time the responsibility of caring for a stroke survivor falls on a woman, including having new household responsibilities and helping the survivor learn to cope and work through any remaining disabilities. During this time, caregivers may be unsure of how best to provide for their loved one and may have emotional and practical concerns of their own.
Caring for a loved one who has suffered a stroke can have a huge impact on the caregiver's emotional well-being and cut into their social activities and leisure time. It is very important to plan for relief and help with caregiving activities. The following is a brief guide to participating in the recovery of a stroke survivor, common concerns of caregivers, and information on how to get the support you need.
An overview of the physical and mental issues caused by a stroke can be found in our article on stroke recovery.
What are the common responses to a stroke in a loved one?
When someone suffers a stroke it is normal for his or her loved ones, especially a spouse, to go through a sort of grieving process—a stroke changes a person, and you may mourn the loss of the person they were before the stroke. This is a normal phase in coping with stroke, and you should not feel guilty. Both you and the survivor are going through these feelings, and discussing them and learning to develop a new relationship in a world that has been changed by stroke is an important part of the recovery process.
Stroke survivors and their family are also often surprised that one of the dominant emotions is anger: survivors may be angry with caregivers for "not doing anything right" or failing to completely compensate for their new disabilities. Caregivers may hold a grudge against the survivor for having a stroke, turning their whole world upside down and burdening them with added responsibilities. Frustration and anger are common early on in dealing with stroke, and it is important to recognize that they are natural human reactions to a change that is outside your control. With time and effort these feelings will pass.
What can I do to help the survivor recover?
Many stroke survivors suffer from depression and apathy after a stroke, which can lead them to withdraw into themselves, stop taking their medications, and not feel motivated to follow their rehabilitation plan. Support from family and friends is crucial in helping the survivor overcome these natural reactions to the limitations of life after a stroke and ensuring a successful stroke recovery. The most important thing you can do for a loved one who is a stroke survivor is to provide emotional support and encouragement. See our article on social support for more on the ways you can provide support to a stroke survivor.
It is also important to make sure your loved one follows the treatment plan and is encouraged to do the rehabilitation exercises. You should accompany the survivor to doctor's appointments and one or more rehabilitation sessions. This will enable you to better understand the consequences of the stroke, the complications and setbacks that could occur, and the goals, schedule, and expected outcome of rehabilitation. It can also give you a window into what the survivor is going through and how you can help the recovery along. If the survivor has problems communicating after the stroke, go along to the speech and language therapy sessions to learn how the two of you can work together to make communication easier. This will make the other aspects of recovery less frustrating for both of you.
It may be tempting to try to do everything for a stroke survivor, especially if you fear he or she may get injured. Avoid doing things for the survivor that he or she can do alone—the more things a survivor is able to do alone, the more his or her confidence and self-esteem grows. Many stroke survivors do not require 24-hour care: if you are not sure if it is safe to leave your loved one alone or how you can minimize the chances of an injury, talk to the doctor or therapist.