Unpaid caregivers are angels on Earth. But being a caregiver has its ups and downs. It’s a tiring, challenging, selfless job that can easily take over the person’s life.
Perhaps you’re a caregiver because there isn’t another family member available to take care of the elderly or ill loved one. Perhaps it’s because you know you’ll take care of the person better than someone else could. Or perhaps it’s because senior homes are too expensive. Whatever the reason is, you’re not alone. There are an estimated 43.5 million unpaid caregivers in the United States, with roughly 34.2 million of those caregivers assisting adults 50 and older.
By intuitively feeling responsible for the care recipient’s comfort, caregivers often sacrifice their free time, health and, ultimately, emotional state for their caregiving tasks. However, this needs to be avoided, because it causes large amounts of stress, can greatly reduce the caretaker’s quality of life and can cause health problems that may result in a premature death.
Stress can be debilitating. You may try to ignore your stress, “stay strong” and try to push on, but stress isn’t good for you, your family or the person(s) you’re taking care of. Due to the stress commonly acquired when caretaking, caregivers have a higher risk of developing depression or a substance abuse disorder.
Common signs of stress in a caregiver:
- Easily irritated, frustrated or angry
- Chronically worried or anxious
- Exhausted or burned out
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Poor sleeping habits
- Lost of interest in fun activities and hobbies
- Dramatic weight gain or loss
- Frequent headaches, pains or physical problems
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
It’s critical to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Be an active player in your own life and it will benefit other aspects of your live (including caretaking), while greatly enhancing your quality of life.
Here are eight important tips for taking care of yourself when you’re a caregiver:
1. Make time for yourself. You’re more than a caregiver and your life is and will be about more than just caregiving. You have friends, family, hobbies, goals, places you want to visit and new things you want to try. So make sure you do them! Take breaks from being a caregiver and rejuvenate your body and mind by doing activities that you enjoy, as well as activities that bring you peace. This can help prevent you from becoming stressed, angry, resentful or depressed while being a caretaker, while allowing you to live an independent life. Additionally, be sure to rest when ill and see doctors when needed. If you’re someone’s only caretaker and feel as though you cannot take breaks, this leads us to the next tip…
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Compassionately let the care recipient know that it is important for your overall health and quality of life to participate in enjoyable activities and hobbies apart from caregiving. There are various caregiving options available for your much-needed time off (whether it is daily or weekly). First, if another family member lives nearby and has available resources, ask them if they would be willing to offer their services to take the full burden off of your shoulders. If not another family member, there are hourly or live-in caregivers you can hire. There are also senior day care centers that can take care of your loved one while you work, relax and live life. If your family can’t afford to pay for a caregiver or day care, there are nonprofit organizations in San Diego that offer free caregiving services, such as Southern Caregiver Resource Center. Additionally, organizations like Meals on Wheels have volunteers that provide affordable hot and cold meals to seniors, while also offering some company.
3. Eat healthy and stay active. When we’re overwhelmed with tasks, we might eat poorly due to time restraints or stress, but it’s critical that you take the time to plan and eat well-balanced meals, with plenty of protein, fruits and vegetables. Stay hydrated by drinking water instead of sugary drinks. Routine exercise is also necessary, with 30 minutes per day being the recommended minimum. However, even if you can only find 15 minutes per day to exercise or 30 minutes four times a week, that’s much better than nothing (and it can prolong your life). Healthy exercise includes light jogging, yoga, cycling and using machines or weights at a local gym. Regular exercise will help improve mood, increase circulation, boost self confidence, reduce chances for certain diseases, as well as enhance flexibility and range of motion. And whenever possible, get outside and enjoy the fresh air!
4. Get enough sleep. Make time for your beauty sleep. Getting between seven and nine hours of sleep per night is critical for your brain and the rest of your body. Without enough sleep, you may suffer from lack of alertness, moodiness, stress, impaired memory, inability to process new information and it increases your risk for a car accident. Problems that can develop when people are chronically sleep deprived include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, obesity and depression. Find a bedtime routine that will help you fall asleep faster and more peacefully, such as stretching, meditating, praying and reading.
5. Set limits. We want to give our loved ones the world, but sometimes a care recipient’s requests are not feasible, for whatever reason. Stay conscientious of regular tasks that you provide for the loved one’s health, cleanliness and day-to-day life, versus requested tasks that are unnecessary or require a lot of your time or energy. As a caregiver, you must learn that it’s as healthy to say no as it is to say yes.
6. Practice positive self-talk. Caregivers often suffer from guilt and negative self-talk, which means critical, pessimistic thinking about one’s abilities or reality. Instead, focus on positive self-talk by acknowledging the good things you are doing to help the care recipient. Understand that no one is perfect, there is no such thing as a perfect caregiver and that you do all that you can for your loved one. Here are some more great tips for positive self-talk.
7. Join a support group. Caregiving can be mentally, emotionally and physically draining, and you don’t have to go through the motions alone. Finding a support group can help you feel less isolated and can also provide a healthy avenue for you to vent, seek advice and feel understood, while gaining companionship. There are many different caregiver support groups throughout San Diego County that you can find online. Religious support groups can also provide sufficient encouragement, strength and guidance to help you through tough times or to share laughs about the good times.
8. Be mindful of your emotions. Don’t repress and ignore negative emotions like stress, sadness, anger, guilt or resentment. Your feelings are valid and should be acknowledged (and then should be followed up with positive self-talk). Know when you’re too emotionally drained or frustrated to provide adequate care for your loved one. Whether you do or don’t find a support group helpful, if you find yourself often feeling stressed, angry or depressed, seek out a therapist or spiritual leader who you can talk with to help you understand and control your emotions. You feel a certain way for a reason and it’s beneficial for you to find out why you feel that way and learn coping mechanisms to reduce distressing emotions.
We hope that these tips help. Never forget that it’s as equally important that you take care of yourself as the care recipient. For more information about being a caregiver, check out Scripps Affiliated Medical Groups’ articles.