If you’re a caregiver, you know how difficult it is to take time off for yourself. The very role suggests putting another’s needs above your own. And that may work short term when our children are infants. But that sets a dangerous precedent when we expect to maintain that level of caregiving for extended periods of time, years even, for a growing or grown person. Especially when the one we are caring for is a formerly independent adult with their own opinions, who may be larger or stronger than us.
The truth is, prolonged caregiving can leave you physically and emotionally exhausted. And the constant strain can lead to feelings of anger, resentment and guilt. If you don’t take time to decompress and process your feelings, you end up risking your own health.
Long-term caregivers who don’t address their own needs and feelings frequently end up needing care themselves. Physical and emotional health suffer when stress and exhaustion are the norm. Caregivers tend to ignore their own physical and emotional needs, may not take time for their own medical care, and often become socially isolated. In fact, they are frequently sleep deprived, don’t rest when they’re sick, don’t exercise or practice healthy eating habits, and are likely to develop depression and other chronic illnesses.
So the irony is that a caregiver who doesn’t take care of herself becomes less able to care for others.
It’s not always easy to take time for yourself, and it might feel indulgent or selfish when your loved one needs care or is suffering. But sometimes, the best way to show your love and support is to step away and recharge. You must love and support yourself before you can give to others. You can’t draw water from an empty well.
If you can leave your loved one alone for a short time or have someone who can stay with them, take yourself out for a breather and to decompress. Take a class, get a massage, enjoy a stroll through a bookstore, or just sit quietly outdoors enjoying nature. Whatever makes you feel relaxed and reminds you who you are outside of your caregiver role. Even if you have very little time, you can enjoy a few minutes of your favorite music or mindfulness meditation.
The healthier you are, the better you can handle the demands on you. Choose to eat healthy foods to support your immune system and boost your energy levels. Junk foods may be tempting when you’re under stress, but the relief they provide is temporary and they will leave you feeling lower than before you ate. Exercise, too, will lower your stress level, boost your energy level and support your overall health. If you can’t fit in a long walk or a workout, take a walk through your neighbourhood. You can still benefit from short bursts of activity when you have a few minutes to spare.
Do you have friends or family members who might be willing to help you? You don’t have to do this alone! Let go and let others help. Even tasks that seem small could have a big impact on your well being. Maybe a neighbor could sit with your loved one while you take a short walk. Or pick up groceries for you while they are doing their own shopping. A family member might love to sort through photo albums or cook a family recipe for you. Your friends and family might not realize you need help and may be waiting for you to tell them what you need.
Find the experts in your area. Your local area agency on aging or other local organizations may have programs that provide house or yard work, meal delivery, help with paperwork, visiting nurses, adult day-time care or respite care. If you’re caring for someone with a specific condition, like Alzheimer’s, you may find additional resources or a 24/7 helpline for resources by doing an internet search for that condition. With expert help for the mundane, you may be able to focus more on your own health or spend more quality time with your loved one.
Being a caregiver is hard. It takes a big heart, a lot of work, and enormous patience to do what you’re doing. You may have been thrown into this with little warning, and nobody handed you a manual telling you how to do all the things you need to do. Accept that you will not always know what to do. But caring for yourself along with your loved one will keep you happier and healthier and can help you enjoy more quality time together.