Self-Care for Caregivers

By June Duncan

Working as a caregiver to a senior or a younger person who needs help can be both rewarding and demanding. It’s very easy to slide into doing more than you can sustain in a healthy way. Becoming over-extended is particularly likely if the person in need is a relative, and your care is simply a responsibility and not a paying job with specific hours. It’s very important to keep your expectations for yourself reasonable–none of us are superhuman. Read on for tips on how to take care of yourself.

Exercise is critical

Exercise is important for general health, and it’s also a great tool for stress management. Especially if you have a job that is largely sedentary, increasing the amount of physical activity in your day is one of the best things you can do for yourself. If most of your time is consumed by a day job and caregiving, you may not be able to squeeze in regular visits to the gym. You can still increase the amount of movement that you do, though. If the person you are caring for does exercise, you might consider joining them. Possibly the two of you could go for a walk. Or you could ride an exercise bike while the two of you watch a movie on TV. At your day job, you could climb stairs rather than take the elevator, and walk around the block on your lunch break. Experts say that even five minutes of aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety.

Ask for help

It’s important to determine what your physical and emotional limits are and set boundaries. Although you might want to do everything possible for your loved one, it may not be possible without a detrimental effect on you. So know when to ask for help. This could be help from a neighbor or family member, a senior center, or a paid worker. Have a handy list of ways people can help, and when they offer, let them choose what they’d like to do. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you may benefit from joining a support group for caregivers. Some organizations, such as the Extra Daughter, offer services for transporting your loved one on errands or to medical appointments, and they may also provide companionship for elders or those with mild dementia. Taking even five minutes each day to allow yourself to be out of caregiving mode can provide relief and help you stay grounded, so ask for a friend or relative to relieve you briefly to make that possible.

General stress management

Besides exercise, stress management consists of ways to renew your body and mind, and there are many approaches. Staying connected to friends and family may seem impossible if your schedule is stretched to the limit already, but it’s important. Studies have shown that social support is beneficial in maintaining mental and cognitive health and may even affect physical health. If you’re pressed for time, invite them to join you for something you already will be doing, such as eating a meal or watching a program with your loved one. Meditation and mind-body practices, such as tai chi and yoga, can also be useful for maintaining mental health. Doing an activity you really enjoy, such as playing the piano or gardening, even for only 15 minutes, can re-energize you and renew your spirit. Remember the value of spending time outdoors, too. Spending even short periods of time outdoors can enhance both physical and mental health, and you may find the person you’re caring for would enjoy being outdoors, too.

As they say on commercial airlines, remember to put the oxygen mask on yourself before attempting to help others. A worn down and depleted caregiver is far more likely to suffer mental or physical problems, so caring for yourself will ultimately also care for the person you are helping. Putting some variation in your daily routine may help too. Consider eating a meal with your loved one outdoors when possible. Although adding self-care to your list of responsibilities may seem like just too much, it will pay off in the long run. Remember, care for the caregiver is what keeps the system running.