A Caregiver is a family member, friend or paid helper who regularly looks after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person. Some are more natural caregivers than others but every caregiver needs to prioritize their own self-care for the benefit of everyone.
When you get on an airplane they go through the safety features and instruct everyone about what to do in case of an emergency. They remind everyone that “in the event of an emergency, please put on your own life mask first, before helping others.” That includes children or the elderly. They say that because they know that if the most able bodied people run out of oxygen, those who will need help are in even bigger trouble than they were when the emergency began.
While we don't have such safety drills on the ground, we should. You can't effectively help others with decision making, caregiving, companionship and the like as well when you are stressed out, run down and at your wits end. You owe it to everyone in your life to take care of yourself.
You may be thinking, “Well, that's easier said than done! You don't understand the pressure I'm under, all the people who count on me, everything I need to do…”
Actually, I understand completely.
I've been where you are and I continue to struggle to balance my own self-care and needs with the needs of my father with Alzheimer's, my stressed out mother, my work, my husband, my son, my health, my mental health… I get it! I can also tell you that I let my own self-care take the back seat to everything else and gained 30+ lbs through the most stressful periods of my dad's illness and I still struggle to get rid of it. I have suffered from anxiety, stomach upset, insomnia and more trying desperately to keep all the plates in the air, to do everything everyone expected of me. To be the voice of reason, the pillar of strength, the helpful daughter, the problem solver… add any other label that feels right and I may have tried to do that too. I get it!
But I also now see that saying NO to some things so I can say YES to taking care of myself is vital.
I see that I can be a better shoulder to cry on, a better sounding board for tough decisions, a happier and less stressed out friend / sister / wife / mother / daughter since I have increased my own self-care. My health is improving as the weight slowly leaves. (WHY does it come so much faster than it goes???) I feel more in control of my life, I laugh more and want to hide in a bag of chips in front of the television less. I have more ease and joy in my life.
You can have this too – if you prioritize taking care of yourself.
Here are 8 Ways for Caregivers (or anyone) to Take Better Care of Themselves.
- Get your sleep.
The most successful people say they sleep 7-8 hours a night – if they can do it, you can to. Make sleep a priority and if you have trouble getting to sleep, create a bedtime routine that you follow like clockwork. Shut down computers, phones and televisions at least an hour before you go to bed so your brain isn't over-stimulated. Stretch. Meditate. Have a cup of tea. Read a book. Find a routine that helps you unwind and relax so you can get your shut-eye and wake up refreshed.
- Exercise regularly.
Exercise is good for the body, the mind and the soul. In fact, sometimes we have a hard time sleeping because we may be mentally tired but we aren't physically tired enough. Exercise also releases stress relieving and feel-good hormones to help you with point #3. Exercise also keeps YOUR body in good shape you so don't have your own health issues to contend with as well.
- Reduce stress.
Caregivers have stress in their lives – I get it. But we can all find ways to deal with and reduce stress and it's important to do so. Simple things like closing your eyes and taking slow, deep breathes can reduce your heart rate and blood pressure – reducing stress within minutes wherever you are. Yoga, meditation, exercise, coloring – there are all kinds of things you can try to keep your stress levels down. Keep searching until you find things you like that you will do on a regular basis.
- Eat well.
What we put in our body great affects how we feel – both physically and mentally. Learn more about the links between food, exercise and happiness in my podcast with Dennis Traylor.
- Get Support.
Trying to do it all yourself so you don't inconvenience others, so you can stay in denial, so you save money, so you don't look weak or needy or whatever other reason is holding you back from getting support is hurting you. Most caregivers, especially family caregivers, don't realize just how stressed and overwhelmed they are until things get really, really bad and they finally have no choice but to get help. Don't get to that place – get support sooner rather than later.
- Give yourself a break.
Allow yourself time off from caregiving. Don't feel guilty for being healthy, having fun or taking care of yourself. You need to live your life while caring for your loved one – would they want you to press pause on your life because they have dementia or Alzheimer's? Or would they be grateful for your love and support but want you to be happy too?
- Choose your battles.
Caregiving is a marathon, not a sprint. Decide what is worth the effort of a debate and what can be let go. If you used to vacuum every day, maybe it will be ok, and you will be less run down, if you do it every other day. If you hire help and they don't do everything exactly the way you think it should be done but your loved one is safe and cared for, maybe that's not a battle to fight. Sometimes caregivers get so overwhelmed they begin to transfer their sadness and anxiety onto people and things that really don't matter in the end – as you feel your defenses going up, ask yourself if it's a battle worth fighting. Often it's not and life is less stressful letting a little more slide.
- Go with the flow.
We don't get to control the process, the symptoms or the timing of how dementia or Alzheimer's progresses in our loved one. We have to learn to let go and go with the flow. We need to know what we can and can't impact and meet our loved one where they are each day. We need to show up and LOVE THEM. Keep them safe, secure and feeling cared for no matter what. In the end – it's the love and connection that matters.
Take care of yourself so that you can do your very best taking care of those you love.
– Tara Reed