Watching a loved one learn a new way of life after suffering a stroke can be heartbreaking. Whether you're a spouse, family member, or friend, knowing the best ways to support someone who has experienced this life-threatening event requires time, patience, compassion and self-care.
"It was a gut-wrenching experience," says Dow. Only 15 years old at the time, his brother's stroke happened when they were on holiday.
Dow shares how there were moments of sheer despair, hopelessness and heartbreak. But he also reminds people that things do get better.
"Most people who go through awful things can report at least one way in which they grew," explains Dow. "Interestingly, some of the things I saw during my brother's stroke planted seeds of compassion in me. Looking back, this is what led to me following a path to becoming a psychotherapist," he adds.
How to show support
If you've suddenly found yourself in the role of care-taking or supporting a loved one after a stroke, there are a few things you should know in order to best help them and also take care of yourself.
A stroke is a sudden and serious condition that can come as a shock, which makes the recovery process difficult. It takes time and puts a strain on both the person who is recovering and the caregiver.
Some of the long-term effects of a stroke include weakness on one side of the body, problems with balance and coordination, swallowing problems, speech and communication difficulties, difficulty with vision, difficulties with mental processing, inappropriate emotions, and tiredness.
"Suddenly seeing a loved one unwell can be very upsetting; it's natural to feel overwhelmed," explains Kate Charles, head of Stroke Support at the Stroke Association. But, as you come to terms with what has happened, you might want to know how you can help.
Charles recommends the following tips to caregivers.
Ask the doctors
Ask the medical team whether there are any small ways in which you can assist with your loved one's care. As time goes on, ask the rehabilitation team to show you ways to provide support between therapy sessions. This could mean helping your loved one re-learn skills or practising therapy exercises together.
Focus on one day at a time
Recovering from a stroke is a gradual process. It's important to encourage and motivate your loved one as much as possible.
Remember to look after yourself
Take breaks, get some exercise, have plenty of sleep and plan regular healthy meals.
Dow also recommends reaching out in order to avoid isolation and loneliness, since both the caretaker and survivor can face some pretty significant feelings of sadness.
What to avoid
It's not easy knowing how to support a loved one. You're going to make mistakes - that's part of the learning process. And while each situation is unique, there are some universal suggestions of things to avoid when supporting a stroke survivor.
Putting too much pressure on yourself
The only way to be an effective caretaker is to make sure that you are not putting too much pressure on yourself.
"Caring for someone can take up a lot of energy, so it should not be undertaken lightly," says Charles. She recommends, if you can, talking to a therapist before you do become a carer, especially if you have any choice in whether you take on the role.
Letting the survivor isolate themself
"As tempting as it may be to hide from the world and sit on the sofa, that is the worst thing a survivor can do for their brain," says Dow. "Every conversation, every step, and every task is 'therapy' for your brain."
Comparing progress and recovery with someone else's
Each stroke is unique, and everyone will recover in different ways. Charles reminds caregivers that some people make an almost full recovery from a stroke, and others recover enough to be able to do many of the things they did before, perhaps with some support. But there are still those who have significant disabilities. That's why it's important not to compare their progress to anyone else's.
Charles believes that you need to find the right balance between helping the person you care for and developing their independence. "Encourage them to do as much as they can right from the start. This may be a very slow process and can be frustrating at times, but in the long run, it's the best way to help," she explains.
Self-care for carers
Self-care is something many of us are not very good at. But supporting someone who has suffered a stroke requires longevity and good health. That's why it's critical to take the time to make sure your physical health and emotional health are being cared for.
Charles reminds us that it is realistic, not selfish, to think carefully about taking care of yourself. "If you don't look after yourself, you risk becoming stressed or exhausted, and this could also affect the person you are caring for," she says.
She also points out that it's important to recognise if you're feeling tired or depressed. Taking regular breaks is crucial. "This might involve having a few hours to yourself every day or arranging more formal respite care."
Organise the day so that you have at least a little time to yourself, suggests Charles. Ask family members or friends for help with specific tasks if you need it. And find a local carers' support group to meet others in the same position as you.
The Stroke Association helpline is available for anyone affected by a stroke, including family, friends and carers. Call 0303 3033 100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.