5 tips to make self-care easier when caring for others

Caregiving for family or friends can be stressful, time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming. Before we know it, we are exhausted and our own lives suffer with mental and physical health issues, relationship conflicts, and financial problems. The prolonged stress can lead to burnout, and burnout hurts both the caregiver and the care recipient. We can’t care well for others when we are so depleted. We become cranky, short-tempered, unobservant, have difficulty juggling it all, and some caregivers become ill and can’t care for loved ones anymore.

Many caregivers say they feel guilty if they do things for themselves while caregiving. It’s important to remember that caring for ourselves while caring for others isn’t selfish. Reasonable self-care isn’t wrong, it’s actually an important part of caring for others. Just as musicians take care of their instruments – which are the tools of their trade and needed to do their jobs – we must take care of ourselves so we can care for others. It’s just practical.

I’ve been a caregiver my entire adult life, so I get it. We just keep going and going because people need us, and we put ourselves at the bottom of the list over and over. And aren’t they more vulnerable than we are? Sometimes they really are – we all experience caregiving crises when we must drop everything and focus on those we care for. But the truth is, caregiving is more like a marathon than a sprint, so we have to pace ourselves. Family caregivers are also very vulnerable. We just don’t realize it until it’s too late.

It can be hard to figure out how to fit self-care into our busy schedules. So here are 5 tips to help you take care of your loved ones’ most valuable resource…you.

  1. Schedule it. It’s as simple as this: if it’s on the calendar, we are much more likely to do it. Schedule check-ups, lab tests, and medical procedures ahead of time. You can start by scheduling a time to call doctors, counselors, therapists, and other healthcare practitioners to set up several appointments at once. When you leave an appointment, be sure to schedule the next one. (Be sure to let your health care practitioners know that you are a caregiver.) Schedule time for exercise classes and other physical activity – even if it’s a simple walk around the block or just three minutes to meditate, stretch or do jumping jacks. Schedule time to rest. Schedule caregiver support groups. Schedule fun and relaxation time too!
  2. Accept Help. Caregiving is, at minimum, a part-time job, and for some, it’s a full-time job (with overtime). No one can, or should be expected to, do it all on top of their own lives. You may feel like you have to do it all because no other family members will help. But we must build our caregiving teams beyond family. Neighbors, friends, organizations/services, and others are team members too. Mom’s hair stylist and manicurist were important members of our caregiving team (I don’t know what I’d have done without their help!). Veterans Affairs was also a crucial part of our team, as were our mobile doctors. A geriatric care manager or patient advocate can help too. People who help you are also part of the team. My neighbor who mowed my grass, a “concierge” or personal assistant who helped me stay organized, a handyman, and others were crucial so I could do the things that only I could do for my parents. The next time someone asks if they can help, say “yes”! And tell them specifically what would help you the most.
  3. Stay Connected. Caregiving can be very isolating. Our world gets a bit smaller as we focus on our loved ones and other top priorities like our jobs or raising children. Socialization and fun become minimized as we let go of hobbies, gatherings with friends, and other activities. Even if it’s once a month or every two months, schedule time with friends, a class, or another outing so you have them to look forward to. No one understands quite like another current or former family caregiver, so consider joining an in-person or online caregiver support group. Therapy, counseling, or life coaching may be helpful too.
  4. Fill Up and Take Breaks: I’ve learned that I can’t run on empty any easier than my car can – and I’m definitely not as efficient when I’m running on low reserves of mental or physical energy. You fill your car’s gas tank on a regular basis, get tune-ups, and do routine maintenance. Do the same for yourself! Think about what ‘fills you up’ – regular, quick things like getting a cup of coffee, texting a friend, or sharing a hug; and premium things every now and then like dinner out, seeing a movie, or taking a class. For you, routine maintenance includes getting good quantity/quality sleep, going to doctor appointments, and laughing on a regular basis. Time away from caregiving is our ‘tune-up’, and respite care may be helpful for that. Remember that doing things to fill yourself up will help you support your loved ones better.
  5. Adjust Your Attitude. Some family caregivers come through the experience better than others, and generally, I find that their attitude is what makes the biggest difference, not the circumstances of their caregiving situation. For example, try to get out of a victim mentality and instead focus on what you choose to do – you choose to be there for your loved ones (even though you don’t choose the specifics of the situation) and there are many people who have no one who chose to care for them. If you feel like a failure because you are not a perfect caregiver, focus on the fact that there is no perfect caregiver, and you are doing the best you can; that’s all that anyone can ask for. I realized that success for caregivers isn’t perfection, it’s resilience – getting back up when we get knocked down and continuing the journey with our loved ones. Being there for them as best we can – that is success!

Amy Goyer is a caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work, and Caregiving. A passionate champion for caregivers, she has also been one her entire adult life, caring for her grandparents, parents, sister, and others. Connect with Amy on FacebookTwitter, and LinkedIn.

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