Caregivers Need to Take Care of Themselves, Too

As the population ages, more caregiving is being provided by people who aren’t health care professionals. About one in three adults in the U.S. provides care to other adults as informal caregivers. 

A caregiver is anyone who provides help to another person in need, such as an ill spouse or partner, a disabled child, or an aging relative. However, family members who are actively caring for an older adult often don’t self-identify as a ‘caregiver.’ Recognizing this role can help caregivers receive the support they need. 

Caregiving can have many rewards. For most caregivers, being there when a loved one needs you is a core value and something you wish to provide. But a shift in roles and emotions is almost certain. It is natural to feel angry, frustrated, exhausted, alone, or sad. Caregiver stress — the emotional and physical stress of caregiving — is common. 

As a caregiver, you may be so focused on your loved one that you don’t realize that your own health and well-being are suffering. Signs of caregiver stress may include feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried, feeling tired often, getting too much sleep or not enough sleep, gaining or losing weight, becoming easily irritated or angry, losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, feeling sad, abusing alcohol or drugs (including prescription medications), or having frequent headaches, bodily pain, or other physical problems. 

Too much stress, especially over a long time, can harm your health. As a caregiver, you’re more likely to experience symptoms of depression or anxiety. In addition, you may not get enough sleep or physical activity, or eat a balanced diet — which increases your risk of medical problems, such as heart disease and diabetes.  

 Strategies for Reducing Stress 

The emotional and physical demands involved with caregiving can strain even the most resilient person. That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of the many resources and tools available to help you provide care for your loved one. Remember, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to care for anyone else. 

To help manage caregiver stress: 

• Accept help. Be prepared with a list of ways that others can help you, and let the helper choose what he or she would like to do. For instance, a friend may offer to take the person you care for on a walk a couple of times a week. Or a friend or family member may be able to run an errand, pick up your groceries, or cook for you. 

• Focus on what you are able to provide. It’s normal to feel guilty sometimes, but understand that no one is a ‘perfect’ caregiver. Believe that you are doing the best you can and making the best decisions you can at any given time.

 • Set realistic goals. Break large tasks into smaller steps that you can do one at a time. Prioritize, make lists, and establish a daily routine. Begin to say no to requests that are draining, such as hosting holiday meals. 

• Get connected. Find out about caregiving resources in your community. Many communities have classes specifically about the disease your loved one is facing. Caregiving services such as transportation, meal delivery, or housekeeping may be available. 

• Join a support group. A support group can provide validation and encouragement, as well as problem-solving strategies for difficult situations. People in support groups understand what you may be going through. A support group can also be a good place to create meaningful friendships. 

• Seek social support. Make an effort to stay well-connected with family and friends who can offer non-judgmental emotional support. Set aside time each week for connecting, even if it’s just a walk with a friend. 

• Set personal health goals. For example, set goals to establish a good sleep routine, find time to be physically active on most days of the week, eat a healthy diet, and drink plenty of water. 

• Improve your sleep. Many caregivers have issues with sleeping. Not getting quality sleep over a long period of time can cause health issues. If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, talk to your doctor. 

• See your doctor. Get recommended vaccinations and screenings. Make sure to tell your doctor that you’re a caregiver. Don’t hesitate to mention any concerns or symptoms you have. 

• Respite care. It may be hard to imagine leaving your loved one in someone else’s care, but taking a break can be one of the best things you do for yourself — as well as the person you’re caring for. Most communities have some type of respite care available, such as in-home respite, adult care centers and programs, and short-term nursing homes.   

Working Outside the Home 

Nearly 60{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of caregivers work outside of the home. If you work outside the home and you’re a caregiver, you may begin to feel overwhelmed. If you do, think about taking leave from your job for a period of time. Employees covered under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for relatives. Ask your human-resources office about options for unpaid leave. 

Remember, you aren’t alone. If you’re like many caregivers, you may have a hard time asking for help. Unfortunately, this attitude can lead to feeling isolated, frustrated, and even depressed. Rather than struggling on your own, take advantage of local resources for caregivers. 

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