Caring for our loved ones can be one of the most meaningful, uplifting acts we do, it can also be physically exhausting and emotionally draining, especially if you’re juggling it with a job or other responsibilities. In addition, being a caregiver can negatively impact your financial status, your personal time, your career, and even your health. In fact, older caregivers have a higher risk of significant health problems, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, depression, overweight, and earlier death due to the prolonged stress and the demands of caregiving.
The risks associated with caregiving can affect both men and women, but women are typically the primary caregivers and thus are ones who are most affected. And, caregiver women are the least likely to seek support for themselves when they need it most.
Being Selfish Benefits Your Loved Ones
Many caregivers think that taking time for themselves to rest or have fun with their friends makes them selfish because there is someone who needs them 24/7. This is absolutely not the case! Caring for yourself is the most important—and often the most forgotten—thing you can do as a caregiver. There is a reason why the flight attendants tell you to put on your oxygen mask first before assisting someone else! When your needs are taken care of, then the person you are caring for will benefit too. In other words, the care you give to yourself is the care you give to your loved ones.
I want you to give yourself permission right now to care for yourself every day, especially when you are caring for a loved one. And, the every day part is key. It does you no good to work yourself to the bone caring for others for weeks and months on end and then you end up getting sick yourself. Caring for yourself daily is the only way you are going to be able to care for your loved ones in the long run.
Here are some ways you can take care of yourself on a daily basis:
- Take Regular Breaks. During the day, be sure to take 20-30 minute breaks at least once or twice. If you are caring for someone that is in need of 24-hour care, make arrangements for someone to relieve you of your duties. This can be another family member, a friend, a volunteer, or a professional caregiver. You may need to take a full day off or even a short vacation if you are caring for someone with a long-term illness. Whatever time off you give yourself, be sure to stay away and do something you enjoy – read a good book, take a nap or an Epsom salt bath, or go to a movie. Also, during your breaks, try to engage in conversations about things other than your caregiver duties.
- Get Some Exercise.I know this sounds like the last thing you want to do when you feel drained, but it is one of the best things you can do for yourself. You don’t have to run a marathon. Aim for 20-30 minutes of exercise at least three times per week. You can schedule this with a friend so you won’t cancel. If you can exercise outside, that’s even better. The fresh air and sun on your face will energize you. If the weather is not good, schedule an exercise class and put it in your calendar so you commit to going. Many fitness and yoga studios have apps where you can book online and the fee is automatically charged to your account, which makes it less likely you will cancel at the last minute. Unless you maintain a high level of fitness and are in good health, try not to engage in strenuous exercise while you are feeling stressed. Instead, try something that will make you feel more relaxed, such as Tai Chi, yoga, walking, or dancing.
- Eat A Balanced Diet:It’s easy to get into the fast food rut when you are busy and stressed. But, eating whole, nutritious food is one of the best ways to maintain your health and energy. You will feel the difference in your body immediately when you substitute sugar and processed foods with a delicious smoothie, soup, or steamed vegetables and lean protein. And, there are many great resources online for preparing quick and healthy meals. No matter how many people you are cooking for, prepare extra food and freeze it. That way, you have some quick meals on hand for when you really feel too tired to make the extra effort to cook.
- Don’t Neglect Your Own Health. Many caregivers neglect their health and end up getting sick or injured. If you feel you are run-down or catching a virus, it’s best to rest. Plus, you don’t want to risk spreading something contagious to the loved one you are caring for. Also, learn the proper techniques for assisting your loved one from bed or a wheelchair. If you injure yourself, get the proper care and ask someone to take over any physical duties that may impede your recovery.
- Let Love Flow. You have an electromagnetic field around your heart that is 5,000 times bigger than your EEG field. That means your heart is really in control, even though your mind thinks it is. So, take some time to quiet your mind. Sit still and breathe deeply. Imagine opening a gate to your heart and letting love flow both ways –to your loved one and back to you. You can do this whenever you feel like things are moving too quickly or you are feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities as a caregiver.
- Indulge Yourself:Sometimes we need a treat to remind ourselves that we are wired to feel joy. I encourage you to treat yourself to a pedicure, a massage, a special dinner out with friends or whatever makes you feel joy. Be sure to reward yourself regularly for the wonderful care you are providing to your loved one. Release any guilt you have about wanting to feel joy. It’s your birthright!
- Get Enough Sleep. When we have more to do, sleep is often where we compromise. When you are a caregiver, you may find yourself feeling exhausted at the end of the day and yet unable to sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep – and I mean 7-9 hours each night – is not only necessary in order for you to take care of yourself, it is also necessary in terms of the quality of care you give your loved one. First, schedule your sleep time so that you go to sleep and wake at the same time each day. Try to develop a good sleep routine. Take a warm bath or read a book before going to bed. Don’t watch TV or use social media before going to sleep. And of course, make sure you don’t eat a huge meal or consume alcohol or caffeine before bed. Finally, make sure your room is dark, quiet and cool. If there are nights when you know sleep will be interrupted, sleep when you can. Take cat naps during the day or go to bed earlier if you know you will need to get up in the middle of the night.
- Stay Connected With Friends.Caregivers can sometimes isolate themselves from their friends. Even though you may feel tired or sad at times, it’s important to stay connected to friends who support you. Having a support network is scientifically proven to improve your outlook and your health. That’s because, when you connect with friends, your brain produces oxytocin—a hormone that calms your nerves and prevents surges in stress hormones. Even if you can’t get out with friends every day, take time to send e-mail or phone friends to catch up.
- Laugh Often. It’s important to hang onto your sense of humor when your days are otherwise pretty intense. To get your daily dose of humor, read something funny or watch a funny movie. Social media is great for getting some daily humor – you can watch funny videos on Facebook, or look at cute animals doing funny things on Pinterest. In addition, try looking for some levity in your situation and maybe even share some of that humor with the loved one you are caring for. Laughter really is the best medicine.
- Watch For Signs Of Burnout. Many caregivers delay asking for help and support because they feel that they should be able to care for their loved ones on their own. Everyone needs help and support, especially when caring for sick or elderly loved ones. Some signs of burnout include feeling like you are on an emotional roller coaster, getting sick often, not being able to find time to care for yourself, feeling numb or over-reacting to things that others say and do, or not remembering the last time you went out or did something fun. If this describes you, start with any one of my suggestions for caring for yourself. If you feel you need professional support, there are many caregiver resources available. You may also want to speak to your, or your loved one’s, church, synagogue or community leaders.