Is the caregiving role a two-way street? While caring for a loved one, caregivers must also care for themselves. As any caregiver can attest to, caregiving can be a huge job. Helping and supporting aging loved ones physically, emotionally, mentally and financially involves assuming unfamiliar responsibilities, balancing time and coping during loss – all issues that can be immensely difficult to manage. Throughout this time, it’s vital to recognize that aging loved ones aren’t the only ones needing care …. your own health must also be a priority.
Caregivers can feel immense obligation when caring for their loved one themselves and can have a great deal that is asked of him or her over months – or years – of caregiving service. Caregivers often identify the value of self-care, also described as respite, but may feel torn about actually doing it. Why is this the case? Some of the main reasons caregivers may feel this way include:
- Feeling a sense of judgment. Caregivers might feel that others would view practicing self-care (or even considering it) as a selfish act.
- Feeling entirely responsible for their loved one’s care.
- Being too embarrassed or ashamed to admit they could use a break or some more help. For example, this could extend to even hiring cleaning help for your home … if the team arrives to find your home very untidy, it will be more obvious that help is required.
- Preferring to keep family matters private. Caregiving isn’t a common conversation in the office lunchroom.
Because of this, a caregiver will typically focus completely on their loved one but disregard themselves. A familiar analogy recommends that airline passengers don their own oxygen masks first before helping others in the event of a plane crash. This may seem counterproductive, but you must think of yourself first before you can be of any useful assistance to others.
Proper, effective and regular self-care for caregivers can lead to greatly reduced levels of stress. Caregiver stress can rear its ugly head in different ways; however, your body and mind will tell you when you are trying to do too much. As a former caregiver, I found myself losing sleep, lacking my usual appetite, and becoming far more impatient when caught in rush hour traffic.
Many self-care options exist. Ask yourself, “What did I like to do before caregiving?” or “What would I like to do?”. A two-week holiday to soak up the Caribbean sun could benefit a caregiver, however, self-care doesn’t always require a suitcase and can be far less costly. A caregiver can, in fact, find very effective means of self-care right at home. As my father physically and mentally declined due to advancing Alzheimer’s disease, writing and walking proved to be excellent coping mechanisms. Writing allowed me to publicly or privately share my experiences, thoughts and feelings. Walking got me out of the house, cleared my head and provided exercise. Even years after my parent’s deaths, I still walk and write and find these activities both very helpful.
7 Beneficial Ways to Promote Self-Care for Caregivers
Self-care involves taking some time for yourself. Here are some good ways to destress and give yourself a mind, body and soul break. Try one or more of the following recommendations to avoid caregiver burnout and make yourself feel better:
- Hire a cleaning service. Having someone else to tidy up your own home and/or your loved one’s home means more free time for you.
- Indulge in a spa appointment or a massage. Stress leads to tension. Soaking in a hot tub or having a masseuse work out those tight knots can release that tension.
- Listen to music. Whether you choose a cd or your favorite streaming mix, music can prove to be a wonderful distraction for caregivers. Listening to music may take caregivers back to better times in their lives, or result in them humming, singing, or dancing along.
- Order dinner in. If you want to cut down on cooking, try ordering in at least once per week. Meal preparation takes both time and effort. By ordering in, caregivers can simplify dinner and have less to clean up afterwards.
- Pursue a creative path. What interests you outside of your daily caregiving? Maybe a pottery-making or painting class? Like listening to music, creative exploration can be a good distraction and may provide caregivers something else to focus on.
- There are many organizations (non-profit and otherwise) that could use your help, energy and expertise. By “giving back”, you can often see and feel better about providing help and support to someone in need.
- Turn off your cell phone. Cell phones can make people more available and accessible – sometimes too available and accessible! Help to ensure your own respite time by shutting your phone off at the end of the day. A caller can always leave you a message on your voicemail.
Make Sure Your Health is a Priority
When caregivers devote a large portion of time providing care, they often leave self-care off the list of priorities. Just as you want your aging loved one to put their health first, put your own first by:
- Booking an appointment with your family doctor. Even if you’re feeling fine, request a complete physical exam.
- Informing your doctor of your caregiving role and any changes you are experiencing.
- Keeping this doctor’s appointment as a priority to you.
- Watching your diet. Include fruits and vegetables. Prepare full meals rather than quick snacks. Cook foods by baking, broiling, or steaming, rather than frying in heavy oil.
- Setting daily or weekly self-care goals. By writing these down or sharing them with someone, you will become more accountable.
It is imperative as a caregiver to stay healthy and capable of caring for a loved one. It becomes habit to put one’s own personal health and wellbeing aside as we help care for a loved one but staying healthy is by far the most vital aspect of your self-care.
Stay connected with family and friends who understand your caregiving role. In our daily lives, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and “too busy”. Without having others to lean on, when needed, caregivers may feel a sense of loneliness. Here are several ways to avoid falling into that trap:
- Check in with people who can offer you support and understanding.
- Invite a friend to meet you for coffee or lunch. You may have to extend this invitation yourself as others may assume that you have very little time to spare.
- Join an activity club where you can meet other people and socialize.
- Initiate a conversation with someone else waiting to see the doctor or standing ahead of you in the grocery store line-up.
- Explore your own neighborhood. There may be caregiving resources, medical condition specific organizations, respite offerings, senior’s associations, and so on.
- Research the internet for health-related information. Before accepting what you read as valid, remember to consider the contributor’s credentials and the currency of the post.
- Watch the nightly news or read the daily newspaper to remain abreast of current local and world affairs.
Benefits of Self-Care
Stepping away from your caregiving responsibilities can prove to be rewarding. Pressing “pause” and – even temporarily – removing your focus from your loved one may seem like the wrong thing to do. However, there are tangible results. Here are several ways that you may feel the difference:
- Increased energy
- Better sleep
- Less irritability
- A greater understanding of your own needs
- Increased patience
- Improved relationships
Caregivers may hear criticism from others about their self-care desires. Individuals in your personal or professional circles may consider this a selfish thing for you to do – or even think about. Please don’t be convinced. This advice may seem sound, but have others served as a caregiver and/or completely understand the related challenges and issues of the job?
On a related note, self-care doesn’t only apply to family caregivers … it applies to aging seniors as well. Encourage your loved one to continually practice self-care and do whatever is possible. Remain patient and avoid the temptation to do everything. Seniors may still be able to function. Can your loved one do any of the following?
- Dress themselves
- Go to the bathroom independently
- Make a sandwich for lunch
- Fold laundry
- Help to plan outings
By allowing your loved one to complete these tasks, you will promote continued independence and self-worth. With your loved one’s active participation, your own job of caregiving can become easier as well.
As a prospective, new, or current caregiver, please make your own self-care a priority. It is both saddening and unfortunate when caregivers ignore themselves. Although the aging senior may be declining, there should be no reason why the family caregiver should decline as well. Remember, when the plane is going down, put on your own oxygen mask first.
If you don’t have anyone that can offer you the support, the FCA (Family Caregiver Alliance) is a great way to get connected with others who understand and can offer support and guidance. FCA offers online Support Groups as well as in-person groups to caregivers.
Eldercare also offers support groups for Family Education and Caregiver Support and a variety of classes related to caregiving if you are located in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Feel free to call Eldercare at (866) 272-3769 if you have any questions.