As a caregiver, it's not unusual to find yourself putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own. This not only isn't sustainable, it's detrimental to your physical, emotional, and mental health. As the flight attendant instructs passengers traveling with others when the oxygen masks are needed, it's critical to take care of yourself first so that you can then take care of others.
Caregiver data, by the numbers:*
- 40%–70% of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression
- 22% of caregivers are exhausted at bedtime
- 72% of caregivers do not see a doctor as often as they should
- 63% of caregivers have bad eating habits
Caregiving is an emotional, physical, and financial commitment
It can be emotionally demanding
When deciding what and how much you can do, make sure that you have the emotional support to handle it. It’s hard watching your loved one struggle with things they were once capable of—don’t underestimate how emotionally draining this role reversal can be.
Do you have friends or family who can give you a break or listen to you vent? Online forums are a convenient way to reach out. If you’d rather get advice and encouragement in person, a local hospital or nursing home likely has local support groups they can refer you to.
It can be physically difficult and time consuming
The frailer your loved one is, the harder it will be to care for them. In the case of a loved one with memory-related concerns such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, caregivers usually need special training. If you need help, don’t hesitate to ask for it and never feel guilty—even medical personnel have teams and support.
Think about the individual tasks your loved one currently needs help with and add up how long each takes. Make sure that you aren’t responsible for more than you can realistically give without draining yourself. This is especially true if you have a job and your own family.
It may be worth it anyway
For some, taking on caregiving responsibilities is the choice that feels right for them whether it’s because they want to honor a commitment they made, they enjoy the time with a loved one who needs them, or they feel well-suited to the work. It can also be a fulfilling act of love or a way to ensure that you know exactly how your loved one’s care is being managed.
Depending on the type of care and the needs of your loved one, know that others may not understand the day-to-day demands on you. You also don’t need to feel guilty for needing some support or relief along the journey, which can often last many years.
Symptoms of caregiver stress
Do you feel frustrated or angry one minute, then helpless the next? Do you make what seems like stupid mistakes, such as forgetting to complete a specific task? Are you smoking or drinking more than usual?
These are not unusual experiences since the stressors on caregivers are significant: It’s a role that demands a lot of time, can be expensive, and is both physically and emotionally difficult. You may also experience symptoms like:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling alone, isolated, or deserted by others
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Significant weight gain or loss
- Feeling tired most of the time
- Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Becoming easily irritated or angered
- Often feeling worried or sad
- Frequent headaches or body aches
Tips for self-care as a caregiver
Self-care is critical for caregivers. Keep these strategies top of mind.
- Build a support network and connect with other caregivers
- Ask for and accept help
- Rest when you need it
- Try not to take things personally
- Prioritize healthy habits
- Stay engaged in activities that matter to you
- Educate and empower yourself with information and resources
- Learn more about caregiver wellness
Balancing priorities as a caregiver
A day only has so many hours, and you probably have many responsibilities between a job, a family, and all the work that keeps your life going. Add caring for an aging loved one to the list—a loved one whose needs increase over time—and you’d be lucky to get any sleep at all. Here are some tips to help you aim for a healthier balance.
Be open to help from others
People willing to help may handle or do things differently than you, and that’s okay. Consider being open to help from others as long as the tasks are adequately done, for example mowing the lawn or folding or putting away clothes.
Look for solutionsMaking caregiving less stressful may require changes. You may need to consider moving your loved one into an environment that makes it easier to care for them, or maybe spending money on dog walkers or house cleaners so that you have less on your plate.
Scheduling your week in advance down to the hour may sound tedious but it can help you stay on course and ensure that nothing vital gets overlooked.
Evaluate and sort necessary tasks from those that are less important. Practice saying “no.” Declare what you can take on and your time frame for doing it. Then kick any guilt to the curb.
Caregiver health: Finding time for you
Taking care of yourself certainly includes getting some form of exercise, eating nutritious food, drinking water, and getting enough sleep. But true wellness includes more than physical activities. Your emotional health is fueled in part by being able to maintain your own interests and social connections. Taking breaks to recharge is fundamental to your overall health.
Add some daily movement to your routine. Consider taking a walk or making time for yoga practice in your living room. What type of movement would you enjoy best?
Commit to a class or new hobby
Choose a personal interest to pursue. Is there an online class you've been wanting to take or a new craft to learn? Find time for something like this in your schedule.
Ask for help
Your friends and family may not know what you need. Make specific requests for help. There are many responsibilities involved in caregiving, which means there are many ways others can help, from providing respite care to offering financial support.
Use the CaringBridge Planner to ask for help with food, chores, transportation, or finances.
Stay in touch
If you can’t make time to see friends in person, make a point of staying connected through social media, texting, or phone calls. Even just the occasional text exchange can help to boost your sense of connectedness if you don't feel up to talking on the phone.
Find support groups
Speaking with people who are going through similar circumstances can help reduce feelings of isolation—you're not alone. Caregiving is a reality for millions of people every day and there are several social media groups and message boards dedicated to creating community and support for caregivers.
Join a care community: The Caregiver Action Network is a place to post messages, ask questions, offer and get support from other caregivers. Free help is also available by phone and email.