Simple Steps Every Caregiver Should Take to Protect Their Own Health

“One person caring about another represents life’s greatest value” – Jim Rohn.

According to a study by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, there are thought to be more than 44 million caregivers in the U.S., providing an estimated value of $257 billion of free care annually. Estimates indicate that family members provide 80 percent of the care for those with chronic illness.

Caregiving means giving a lot of yourself, but can also be a rewarding experience, a new phase in a relationship with your loved one and a chance for personal growth. However, the reality is that acting as caregiver for a loved one can be a very physically and emotionally demanding experience.

It is easy to lose sight of your own health when caring for another’s. However, this can result in declining health for you, the caregiver. If not careful, you may find yourself experiencing extreme levels of stress causing sleeplessness, fatigue, loss of appetite, etc. When you allow your health to decline, you are not only causing harm to yourself, but also to those you care for. Your value as a caregiver is bound to decrease when you cannot function properly due to poor health. One of the best analogies for this is to think of the safety message on airlines: If you are traveling with a child or someone dependent on you, you should put your own oxygen mask on first. Otherwise, you will not be able to help them. Caregivers must heed this message to maintain their own ability to continue caregiving.

Here are our tips for protecting your own health (and sanity) as a home caregiver:

  1. Recognize your own limits. Know how much you can handle when caring for a loved one. Bring in a professional or ask for help from another friend or family member if need be. Ask yourself: how much time do I have to dedicate? What are my other responsibilities (childcare, work, personal time, etc)? Learn to prioritize and delegate.
  2. Make “me time.” Don’t forget about your own needs. What is that one thing you love to do? Exercise, meditate, a monthly hair or nail appointment, date night with your spouse, book club, game night with friends, etc. Carve out time for that one special thing and permit yourself to take that time.
  3. Express your own emotions. If feeling angry, depressed or overwhelmed, express these feelings to someone rather then keeping them bottled up. Finding methods to cope with these feelings will come much easier if you acknowledge them. Consider a caregivers support group; this can be a great vehicle for expressing these emotions and gaining support.
  4. Take a bow. Receive and accept any consideration, affection, forgiveness and acceptance for what you do from your loved one, and offer these qualities in return.
    Give yourself a pat on that back. Take pride in what you are accomplishing, applaud your own courage it sometimes takes to meet the needs of your loved one.
  5. Take a vacation. Too often, caregivers take on too much without a break, and the consequences can be grave. The stress alone, can take quite a toll on your health. It is certainly understandable for one to be concerned or feel guilty about leaving their loved one while they are in need. However, there are several options for temporary care – a family member, a flexible and surprisingly affordable in-home help plan, etc. In addition, there are several new monitoring options available that allow you to check in with your loved one for the peace of mind that will allow you to relax and enjoy your break. Learn more here.

Every caregiver will face times when they find it hard to heed this advice. You will run into challenges, find yourself overwhelmed and feeling guilty about seeking out help or taking time for yourself.  This is natural and a normal part of the process. If you are able to, find time for a support group, seek out individual counseling or coaching or join a caregiver community online.  Seek out an option you feel comfortable with and that supports you. This can help you not only in sharing feelings and reducing isolation but also in getting practical advice and resources. With support, create and carry out an action plan for your wellbeing.

When caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, your stressors may be made worse by a care recipient who expresses paranoia towards you, cannot be left alone, cannot be reasoned with or behaves inappropriately or dangerously. Our Director of Staff Development, Ric Cavanagh, addresses these special issues in regular blog posts. Read Ric’s most recent Alzheimer’s disease blog post here. You can also consider caregiver coaching and consultations via Aging Wisely care management services.