Are You Caring for Yourself as a Family Caregiver?

Ignoring your own health is a common and serious hazard of caregiving, but you can take steps today to protect your well-being.

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- Posted on Jun 23, 2020

A woman reading outside with her dog.

You snap easily and find yourself lying awake at night spinning worrisome what-if scenarios in your head. When you wake up, you wonder how you’ll get it all done. Then you start all over again, doing your best to care for your loved one because he or she needs your help and is your top priority. By the end of the day, though, you haven’t taken the walk you’d hoped for, or read any of the book that’s been sitting beside the bed, collecting dust.

You may not even notice your own stress when you’re pouring an abundance of attention and energy into caring for an older loved one who has dementia or another chronic health condition. If you do recognize signs of caregiver stress, it’s easy to disregard them. With only so many hours in the day, it’s not unusual to feel that taking time for yourself is impossible, or to simply wonder, “Why bother?”

But caregiver stress is a serious issue. Caregiving alone is challenging enough. When it’s paired with a full-time job and other family and community responsibilities, it’s a prescription for burnout—unless you take steps to combat it. When you make it a priority to pay attention to your own needs, as well as those of your loved one, you can do much to protect your physical and mental health. Ignoring the signs of this form of stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and increase your risk of medical problems like heart disease and diabetes, due to deficiencies in sleep, physical activity or proper nutrition.

The good news is that there are simple steps you can take today to boost your own well-being.

The Mayo Clinic website lists the following signs of caregiver stress:

· Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried
· Feeling tired often
· Getting too much sleep or not enough sleep
· Gaining or losing weight
· Becoming easily irritated or angry
· Losing interest in activities you used to enjoy
· Feeling sad
· Having frequent headaches, bodily pain or other physical problems
· Abusing alcohol or drugs, including prescription medications

How can you start right away on a path of self-care?

Set a daily routine
Just as familiarity is important to your loved one who has dementia, having a daily routine for yourself can help you to remain centered, positive and organized. Setting aside a certain time each day to read something inspirational, meditate or do yoga, maintain a spiritual practice or write in a journal—anything that sets a calm mood—can have enormous value. It can help to read about others who have come through difficult times. Making a daily to-do list can also be a good way to avoid getting overwhelmed. You don’t have to stick to the list, but it can serve as a useful guide.

Reach out for help and accept it
No one can do it all. Connect with friends and family member in whatever way possible—either virtually or in person. A variety of support groups are available online, and you can drop it whenever you need to. Don’t beat yourself up, thinking you’re not doing enough. Keep your goals realistic. You can find out about local resources for caregivers at the Eldercare Locator.

Decide to eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water and establish a good sleep routine
You can make things easier on yourself when you plan ahead to make simple, nutritious meals. You may also want to explore a home-delivered meal service. If you’re sleep deprived, you may want to try to cut out caffeine, alcohol and sugary foods and modify your sleep environment by keeping your bedroom dark, quiet and cool. Exercise, routine and daily exposure to light can also improve sleep patterns.

Do things you enjoy
Stop and smell the roses. Go out into nature, if you’re able. Spend time snuggling with a pet, if you have one. Make it a habit to express your creativity through art, music, cooking or whatever you like best. When you enjoy an activity, it’s easier to make it a habit. Show your appreciation to yourself with little rewards—a pedicure, leafing through a magazine with beautiful photos, setting aside a couple of hours to watch a movie that makes you laugh or just feel good.

Attend to your own health
Don’t ignore your own health needs. Keep up with medical check-ups. Research has shown that caregivers can face serious adverse physical and mental health consequences due to physical and emotional demands and reduced attention to their own health and health care. One way to lessen the burden is to gain more competence and confidence through education. The Alzheimer’s Association offers an array of care training resources to help you become an educated caregiver.

Consider respite care
Adult day programs, in-home assistance, visiting nurses and meal delivery are a few options to help you ease up on daily tasks. For more information, go to: Community Resource Finder. In-home care is an excellent option which offers you temporary rest from caregiving, while your loved one continues to receive care in a safe environment.

For information on what women can do to alleviate caregiver stress, including caregiving services in your community and options to pay for home health care and other caregiving services, go to the Office of Women's Health website.

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