Becoming a Caregiver? Have a Plan for Self-Care!

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For many caregivers, the decision to care is an easy choice. Your loved one is in need, so of course, you’ll step up to help. Still, you shouldn’t underestimate the challenges of being a caregiver.

The demands of caregiving can be overwhelming. Not only are you responsible for another person’s every need, but becoming a caregiver also disrupts your own home life and finances. You may have to leave your job, spend extended periods away from home, or ask your spouse to handle the bulk of parenting duties. If you’re not mindful, this can lead to being tired, stressed, and emotionally run down. In fact, it’s so common that it has its own name — caregiver stress. When caregiver stress goes unchecked, it can lead to total burnout.

According to Next Avenue, caregiver burnout is “mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that may develop through the responsibilities of supporting and caring for another individual.” When you’re burnt out, a good night’s sleep or a day off won’t make a difference — your stress, frustration, and isolation are so intense that burnout pervades every aspect of life, to the point that non-caregiver work and relationships suffer as well.

While some degree of caregiver stress is inevitable, burnout isn’t. You can manage stress and prevent caregiver burnout by prioritizing your own needs as well as your loved ones. After all, you can’t properly care for someone else unless you’re caring for yourself first.

Here are five ways that caregivers can practice self-care:

Accept Help

Accepting help is a crucial self-care practice for anyone, but especially caregivers. If a friend or loved one offers to lend a hand, take it, or if you need some assistance in your personal life or in your caregiving duties, ask for it. The people in your life mean well, but they may feel that offering you a respite is overstepping, so don’t hesitate to reach out to people who could truly ease your burden.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to recruit professional help if it’s needed. For example, hiring a housekeeper could open up a few hours in your week that could be spent relaxing. This type of service usually only runs about $100-$200, a small fee for cutting out menial, off-loadable tasks you don’t have the energy for. Likewise, if you have a dog you simply don’t have time to take on his afternoon stroll on certain days of the week, you can also consider hiring a dog walker to help out, which will only set you back about $20-$30.

Accept Imperfection

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Things won’t go perfectly when you’re adopting the role of caregiver for the first time. Dishes will go undone, baths will be skipped and doctor’s appointments will be forgotten. It’s OK to make mistakes; rather than beating yourself up about it, try to create systems that help you stay on top of the important things, and know that if the less-important things go undone one day longer, it’s not the end of the world.

Skip the Guilt

You didn’t cause your loved one’s condition. While it’s hard to watch someone you care about decline in health, you shouldn’t feel guilty. Yet, as Today’s Caregiver points out, caregivers commonly report feeling guilty — for not doing enough, for not being able to improve their loved one’s condition, for feeling happy or spending time on themselves when a family member is ailing. But while you can provide valuable support, you can’t change reality, so do your best, and don’t feel guilty.

Find Healthy Stress Relief

There will be days that caregiving wears your patience thin and sends your stress levels sky-high. Even on the good days, it’s hard caring for someone else. The stress and isolation of caregiving drives some people to self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, but using substances as a coping mechanism sets you on dangerous path to addiction. Instead, find healthy ways to relieve stress both in the moment and at the end of a long day. Breathing exercises, guided visualization, or a quick walk around the block can lower stress levels when you’re overwhelmed mid-day, and exercise, hobbies, and other self-care rituals help you unwind when you have more time.

Use Respite Care

Respite care isn’t for lazy caregivers, and it isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessary tool for meeting caregivers’ needs so they can meet patients’ needs. Find a respite care service in your community, and use it. Respite options may include overnight stays at an assisted living facility, partial-day care in your own home, or adult day services through churches and community groups. While not all respite services can provide medical care, they all provide much-needed breaks to family caregivers.

Caring for a family member in their time of need is noble, but it isn’t easy. If you want to provide the best care from beginning to end, you need to make your own well-being just as important as your ailing loved ones. Like on airlines, if you don’t put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, you both suffer.

Written by: Harry Cline, creator of NewCaregiver.org and author of the upcoming book, The A-Z Home Care Handbook: Health Management How-Tos for Senior Caregivers. As a retired nursing home administrator, father of three, and caregiver to his ninety-year-old uncle, Harry knows how challenging and rewarding caregiving can be. He also understands that caregiving is often overwhelming for those just starting out. He created his website and is writing his new book to offer new caregivers everywhere help and support.