Does this sound like you? You had a long day caring for others and you go home to sit on the couch, watch tv, eat some chips, and fall into bed exhausted a little late. Then, you wake up bright and early to start it all over again with a quick jolt of coffee and some sweet breakfast. You may be experiencing caregiver burnout or stress.
Caregivers are at an increased risk of heart disease, high cholesterol, stress-related anxiety disorders, depression, and decreased immune function. Roughly 1/3 report not going to a doctor when they needed to and most report needing more sleep.
While focusing your energies on the needs of others, you may run an increased risk of losing track of your own needs. When was the last time you had a check-up with your doctor or dentist or eye doctor? Lunch out with a friend? A good night's sleep?
If you're a parent, this isn't the first time you've had to reorder your priorities to accommodate the needs of another person. Chronic exhaustion and social isolation are common experiences, especially for new parents. But that's where the comparison ends. Caring for a helpless infant tends to be a much-longed-for experience that brings joy as well as exhaustion, and in any case, it is time-limited. The most beaten-down parents can look forward to the day when their children will be able to care for themselves. Caregivers of aging parents are also often older and experiencing some new aging issues of their own.
Still, the concept of caring for oneself “first” holds true for both situations, and we may find it helpful to resurrect the skills we developed for making it through the days when our kids were young. Here are some major areas to consider.
1-2-3 Method for Taming the Stress of Tough Situations
Events happen. Sometimes, whole "years" happen! Remember the prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can and the Wisdom to know the difference?" Well, that is a very useful thing to remember and say out loud when faced with problems that sometimes seem unsolvable. Many times, the things that cause the most stress are other people and their choices or state and how these affect themselves and those around them. If you are struggling with a person, remember, you cannot control others! Sometimes, we struggle so much because we are worried about the future (which we cannot control), we are trying to control outcomes (which we do not control) and maybe we are also fretting over things past (which cannot be changed). Understanding the things in our lives that we can't control is the first step.
- Understand what you can and cannot control. Understand what is realistically going on and how much you really have the power to change things.
- Ask yourself if you are thinking thoughts that are unnecessarily too negative. For example, "he is not taking his medication again because he wants to upset me." While you may have very good reasons to think this type of thought, you really don't know another's motivations. So, why not choose to have a compassionate and impersonal response such as "he must really not be ok if he is not trying to help himself." This allows you to detach and not take his actions personally and at the same time have some compassion toward a person who is obviously struggling.
- Choose your actions. We don't have control over others or the weather, but we can decide whether to bring an umbrella or put up with mistreatment from others. So, take responsibility for acting in ways that can protect yourself. An umbrella is about protecting yourself, not "tackling rain." It is kind, appropriate, and wise to look after your own needs and care enough about yourself to do what you can to be loving and helpful to yourself. In fact, that is often the only thing we can realistically do when faced with difficulties. Some people feel guilty taking care of themselves, but as long as you are not interfering with someone else's ability to take care of themselves, it is often the best thing for others too. In the end, no one benefits from you letting yourself become frenzied, unhappy, or unhealthy. One great way to take care of yourself is to set limits. Saying to someone "I love you and it is hard for me to watch you smoke when I know how sick you are - please don't smoke around me" feels hard - but as long as it is said in compassion and love and as long as you stick to it, you may actually stir a positive change or the trigger to help someone quit. The important thing to remember is that no matter what you do, you will not be assured of a positive outcome in someone else. It is impossible to control others. But, as it turns out, when we take loving care of ourselves and remain compassionate of others, it often does spark health in others too. You have to do it either way and remember there are no guarentees other than you remaining true to your own truth and health.
So, life will hand you challenges. If you did not have any, you would not be alive. But, you can 1) decide what you can and cannot do anything about, 2) not take the challenge personally and try to remain loving and kind and compassionate toward yourself and others, and 3) choose wisely how to best take care of yourself in the situation.
Care for Your Physical Health
You wouldn't ignore the medical needs of any person in your care, and you shouldn't ignore your own. Annual physical exams and flu shots, dental checkups every six months and a eye exam every two years, more often if you wear contact lenses – all belong on your to-do list. If your child were sick you wouldn't send her to school, and when you're sick you need to treat yourself as you would any of your loved ones. You'd be concerned if your loved one weren't eating a healthy diet, and the same goes for you. You know your child and your parent need to stay physically active as much as possible, and so do you.
There are three primary things you can do to keep yourself healthy:
- Eat Well: Consume a wide variety of nutritious foods with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables while avoiding overly processed foods and too much caffiene, sugar and alcohol.
- Sleep Well: Ideally, we would sleep 7-8 hours a night. Some people say 9 is even better! While even 6 may sound like a nice luxery - it is not. Sleep is a necessary and important part of staying healthy.
- Exercise Regularly: You don't have to be a marathon runner or an olympic hopeful to harness the benefits of exercise. Just do it as the Nike commercial says! And I would add - "Do it Regularly." A simple daily walking routine is often enough to benefit your body.
Caring for Your Mental and Emotional Health
When your children were young, you helped maintain your sanity by connecting with others in your situation. Playgroups weren't just for kids, they were social opportunities for parents as well. It felt good to spend time with others who shared your situation.
It may seem harder to find the caregiver's equivalent of a playgroup – but they're out there. Find them by contacting your local hospital or senior center. If you let people know what you're dealing with, you may well learn that your neighbors share your stress. It's easy to believe that your situation is unique, but most likely you're not alone. For online support, check out our SageCorner Blog and Forum.
Caregivers, like the people they care for, are at an increased risk for depression, which is more than just a blue feeling or a down day. At its worst it can rob you of joy and hope, and it most certainly will interfere with your ability to be a good caregiver. The Geriatric Mood Scale, developed to screen older adults for depression, also works as a quick assessment of how you are feeling about your life. If you score high, don't ignore it. Depression is treatable, and you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get help.
Self Care Tips for Caregivers
- Strive for eight hours of sleep every night
- Carve a piece of every day to be just yours, and do whatever you like with it
- Spend time each day in positive communication with others – in person, online, or by phone
- Break down big tasks into manageable chunks
- If you're feeling overwhelmed, ask for help
- Eat the best quality of foods you can
- Do some form of exercise daily, even if it is just a short walk
- See your doctor for regular check ups and routine tests like mamograms and cholesterol screenings