Taking care of yourself is one of the most important — and often the most forgotten — things you can do as a caregiver.
After going through the journey and heartache of being the family caregiver for my father for twelve years, and then enduring the pain of legal conflicts with my siblings, I ultimately asked myself a key question: What would I do differently if I could do it all over again? My answer was simple: I would take better care of myself. Looking back, I do not regret my decision to be my father’s caregiver. I did it for love. It was rewarding to have the opportunity to give of myself to my father in his time of need, as he had given so much to me. Even so, it was exhausting. It took a very real physical toll on my body.
The moral of my story: to be an effective caregiver, you must also take care of yourself. I’ve found that exercise and meditation help me to relax, and now I wish I had known to take some time to nurture myself better while I was on the journey with my father.
While interviewing more than fifteen hundred caregivers nationwide, I was amazed that they all gave responses that were similar to mine when I asked them the question, “What would you do differently?” We’re so busy caring for our loved ones that we forget how important our own self-care is. As a result, caregivers end up with all sorts of physical ailments, such as back and neck problems. We even end up in the hospital.
When I asked one woman if there was something she’d do differently if she could do the caregiving all over again, she, too, remarked, “I didn’t give consideration to my own health, and I should have.” She then confessed that she’d had so much love for her mother that even though she herself had diabetes and hypertension, when she was at her mother’s bedside in the hospital, her eating habits fell apart. Matters came to a head one day, when she thought she was having a heart attack. She couldn’t make it from her chair in the living room to her dining room table without feeling like she was going to fall down. She went to see the doctor and was told she had severe anemia.
And like many other caregivers, who somehow manage to keep themselves going with adrenaline when in a crisis mode, in the transition period when she was grieving her mom’s death, the woman fell apart. Caregivers are notoriously rundown. A common thread in all my conversations with the caregivers I have met across the country is how beaten up they feel. They’re trying to help someone they love and they’re falling to pieces in the process. At my company, Grandpa’s Dream, we’ve established a national Caregiver’s Appreciation Day to give people a chance to show family caregivers their support. Visit CaregiverStory.com for more details.
The Physical and Emotional Toll of Caregiving On the Caregiver
Caregivers are considerably less likely than non-caregivers to practice preventive health care and other self-nurturing behaviors. As a result, caregivers are at risk for depression, chronic illness and a decline in the quality of their life.
According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, “caregivers report problems attending to their own health and well-being while managing caregiving responsibilities.”
Issues many caregivers report experiencing include:
- Sleep deprivation
- Poor eating habits
- Failure to exercise
- Failure to stay in bed when ill
- Postponement of medical appointments or failure to make them in the first place
- Excessive use of alcohol, tobacco and medications for depression
Caring for a loved one can be an emotional roller coaster. On the one hand, caring for your family member demonstrates your love and commitment, and it can be a very rewarding personal experience.
On the other hand, caregivers must often contend with exhaustion, worry, inadequate resources and continuous care demands, and these are enormously stressful. Thus it is normal for a caregiver to experience at least some of the negative emotions listed below:
- Feeling guilty when you feel a little bit of happiness
- Feeling an intense and sometimes overwhelming grief
- Feeling angry about being a caregiver
- Having a sense of caregiver burnout
- Resenting a family member for his or her actions, or lack of actions, regarding your loved one
While stress and these negative emotions are a normal part of caregiving, it is important to realize that the stress of caregiving, particularly sustained stress, can result in major depression. Depression is particularly prevalent among family caregivers: studies show that an estimated 46 to 59 percent of caregivers are clinically depressed.
Have You Eliminated Exercise from Your Routine?
When you are caught up in the daily duties of caregiving and the intermittent emergencies, it is easy to let your exercise routine fall by the wayside. But one of the best ways to combat the stress of caregiving is to work out. So reincorporate that exercise routine into your schedule and stick to it.
Have you postponed your own medical appointments or medical needs in order to care for your loved one? Think about the last time you were an airline passenger. Do you recall that emergency evacuation announcement, in which you are instructed to give yourself oxygen first and then help your fellow passenger? As a caregiver, always remember to take care of yourself first.
Taking Care of Yourself When You Are a Caregiver
Now that you know the emotional and physical toll that caregiving can have on the caregiver, take control. As a caregiver, you must make your own health and emotional well-being top priorities. Here are some key strategies to restore and maintain your health and your sense of well-being when you are a family caregiver and thus become a resilient caregiver who practices healthful caregiving.
Reach out for Help
Many caregivers find themselves in the position of being the only person in a family caring for a sick elderly loved one. If you are a sole caregiver, there are many reasons why this may be so, ranging from the fact that you live nearer to your loved one than others do, to the fact that you have had a closer relationship with your loved one over the years, you have the financial means to supply the care that’s required, and you have time available in your schedule to give care.
But by going solo, many caregivers simply get beaten up emotionally and physically while providing care. If that is the case, the caregiver must reach out for the help he or she needs in order to survive this very heartbreaking experience. If you are one of those solo caregivers and you get along well with your siblings, consider sharing the caregiving duties with them. You can support one another in the mutual caregiving of your loved one by contributing time, energy and your personal abilities to the process. As the adage goes, many hands make light work. I reached out not only to extended family members but also to assisted-living communities, my church and a senior adult day treatment center for support. The senior day treatment center in particular was an environment where Dad was socially, mentally and emotionally stimulated, as he was around his peers. I suggest that you, too, cast a wide net when you need support in caregiving.
Remember, you are not alone on this journey. Know and trust the fact there are other caregivers, organizations and trained professionals that will assist you. Don’t be afraid to make phone calls, ask for assistance and accept the help you need. Whatever you do, please don’t wait to reach out until you are already overwhelmed and exhausted, or until your health is failing. Reaching out for help sooner will greatly benefit you by preserving your health and well-being.
Don’t Be Afraid to Reach out for Help!
Identify your stressors and then endeavor to eliminate them Make time to take a look at your stressors. The following questions will help guide you toward identifying your stressors and getting the help you need. The key is to take the time to take care of you!
- Have you identified your sources of stress?
- Are your stressors due to your caregiving situation?
- Are you looking at your situation like a glass that is half full or half empty?
- What actions are you willing to take to help change your situation and eliminate your stressors?
- Have you taken the time to write down what your stressors are so you can make corrective changes?
Move Forward with Therapy
When I recognized that I needed emotional help after my caregiving journey, I searched for a professional therapist who specialized in senior care, caregiver support and family conflicts. I knew I needed to speak with someone who specialized in these particular areas to help me understand exactly what I had gone through and how best to move forward in my life. I was truly a train wreck and needed to get back on track again, but I didn’t know how. I eventually found a fantastic therapist. Her practice was a whopping ninety-mile drive from where I live. After my first visit with her, I felt as if a burden had been lifted.
The key question I had for her was, “What could I have done differently in the care of my dad?” For the longest time, I’d felt that if I had only known the right questions to ask the doctors or had suggested another form of treatment, things could have ended differently for him. On some level, I’d blamed myself for his illness. For months I’d been upset with myself because I’d been unable to save my dad by somehow fixing him and making him the person he once was. For me, understanding there was nothing else I could have done was one of the biggest hurdles to cross. (Apparently, it is common for caregivers to play the blame game, to blame themselves for their loved one’s condition, reckoning that “If I had only. . .” Always remember that you did everything within your power as a caregiver to provide the best possible care for your loved one. Pat yourself on the back and thank God you were there for your loved one.) Like many caregivers at the end of the caregiving journey, I was experiencing grief—which often involves a constellation of anger, denial and depression, before acceptance and peace can be attained.
Over a period of months and years, I was able to face my feelings of resentment, guilt, loss and anger. Now I am able to enjoy some of the activities I previously enjoyed before my dad got sick. The emotional pain I used to feel when I thought about my situation has been transformed into energy, which I use to help others avoid the pitfalls of caregiving when a loved one becomes ill.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, the rewards of caring for an aging loved one who is sick or is coming to the end of life are mostly intangible, and often there is no hope for a happy outcome. It can be a long, hard road to travel. Thanks to the perspective I have gained about my caregiving experience, I can now look back and see how stress piled up on me while I was going through my caregiver journey without a road map. You can avoid the frustration, despair and burnout associated with caregiving if you successfully adopt positive coping mechanisms.
Put yourself in a position to avoid the very real dangers of burnout by following a few essential guidelines:
- Embrace your feelings instead of running from them. Caregiving can trigger a host of difficult emotions, including anger, fear, resentment, guilt, helplessness and grief. As long as you don’t compromise the emotional well-being of the one receiving your care in the process, allow yourself to feel whatever you feel.
- Educate yourself as much as possible about your aging loved one’s condition so that you won’t experience the added strain of not knowing what needs to be done.
- Know your limits, that is, how much you can realistically handle as a caregiver. Don’t overexert yourself. If possible, ask your immediate family and extended family for help if you feel you are going beyond your limits. Otherwise, seek help in your community, from doctors and from caregiver support groups.
Get Respite Care
It’s a fact that caregiving is an extremely demanding and difficult job that no one is equipped to do alone. Getting the breaks you need to preserve your mental health and physical well-being is therefore crucial for you and the loved one you are caring for, especially if you live together.
During the time I cared for my dad in my home, I got into the state of mind and a routine of doing it all without taking a break. I did not have support from my immediate family. Although I did try to take a break for a day every now and then, I was never successful in doing so. While I was caring for my dad, there always seemed to be an emergency. I felt I couldn’t leave his side, because something might happen to him or he would cause an accident. For instance, I feared that he would fall, wander off or start a fire. I was aware then that I could contact a care facility that would take him off my hands for a month so I could have a thirty-day respite from caregiving, but I never felt comfortable leaving Dad with strangers, so I never made the call. In retrospect, I realize I should have taken time off at least once a month and gone to a day spa or a weekend retreat center, or at the very least, just stayed home and lain in bed without feeling guilty. Every caregiver needs to take a break at intervals from the demands of caregiving.
So let me give you the advice I didn’t take myself and wish I had: Consider respite care. Respite care offers an excellent opportunity for you to enjoy a short-term break in caregiving to relieve your stress, restore your energy and improve the balance in your life. It is an especially good option if your situation is like mine was and you’re finding it difficult to get support from siblings or friends. There are many respite care options available.
A good way to start researching your respite care options would be to contact caregiver support groups in your area. Also, churches, health care professionals, extended family and friends might be able to point you in the right direction when it comes to respite care.
Join as many groups as you can, such as the YMCA, a gym and a positive caregiving support group. Contact senior centers, church groups and other organizations in your area that you can count on for personal support. Establishing this support network makes a world of difference in your attitude and will help increase your health, wellness, fitness and well-being.
Do the “little” things that promote well-being:
- Try your best each day to give yourself at least one hour to do something only for yourself.
- Eat foods that will make your body feel better.
- Meditate or practice another relaxation technique.
- Get a good night’s sleep.
- Revive an old hobby.
- Go out with friends.
- Go on a date.
- By Carolyn A. Brent, MBA
Carolyn A. Brent is an award-winning and bestselling American author and eldercare legislation advocate. Designated as an Editor's Choice, she was reviewed by the Library Journal as well. Verdict: excellent!
Brent is also known as a bodybuilder and Health & Wellness Guru. She is the founder of Across All Ages and two nonprofit organizations, CareGiverStory Inc. and Grandpa’s Dream. Visit: CareGiverStory.com
Excerpt. © Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.