As a caregiver, it’s common to direct all of your worry and effort toward supporting your loved one. Unfortunately, it's also unhealthy. In fact, research shows that more than a third of family caregivers in the U.S. continue to provide care despite suffering from poor health themselves.
And estimates show that as many as 70 percent of caregivers have symptoms of depression. That may be because they absorb more stress and tend to get less sleep, and typically make less time for preventative healthcare and other forms of self-care.
“Those of us in the ‘Sandwich Generation’ are often squeezed between simultaneously caring for children and an elder family member,” says Lynda Shrager, an occupational therapist and Certified Aging in Place Specialist. “This demanding role often becomes more stressful when worrying about how to split time between the generations and still find time for oneself.”
What’s more, women (who make up the bulk of family caregivers) may be less likely than men to prioritize their own health. A new survey of more than 1,000 women between 30 and 60 years old published by Redbook Magazine in partnership with GCI Health and nonprofit health information source HealthyWomen, revealed that 45 percent of respondents don’t make time to focus on their health.
“For so many women, we put ourselves last,” says Beth Battaglino, CEO of HealthyWomen. “When we think about self-care, we need to start thinking about putting ourselves first.”
In honor of National Stress Awareness Month, we rounded up some self-care basics that all caregivers should heed to ensure their own health and be better equipped to care for their loved ones.
1. Form a caregiving support team
Experts say that this is one of the first things caregivers should do to ensure that you and the loved one you’re caring for have the support you need.
“No one has to go through this alone,” says“ Instead reach out to form as large a network of helpers as you can. Most people naturally turn to their immediate family members and hopefully yours are willing and able to offer support.”
Shrager, author of "Age in Place: A Guide to Modifying, Organizing and Decluttering Mom and Dad’s Home" advises widening your circle of support to include any grandchildren, neighbors or friends who may be able to help out by providing companionship for your aging loved one or helping with tasks around the home. And family members who live far away can still help out with tasks such as managing bank accounts, paying bills or setting up doctors’ appointments for your loved one, she says.
“As you’re mapping out your schedule for the week, see if there’s an opportunity to engage another family member to help you out and give you a day off,” suggests Battaglino.
2. Make time just for yourself every day
Carving out time each day that’s just for yourself may seem nearly impossible for many family caregivers, but it’s essential for maintaining your sanity. It doesn't have to be long -- it just has to be yours.
“It could mean just taking time to say, I’m just going to sit down for 10 minutes, have a cup of coffee and not do anything,” says Battaglino. “Identify what activities help you smile and make you feel the best and put time on your calendar for them. It may be a run, a walk, yoga -- whatever it is, make time for you.”
Shrager, too, advises indulging in enjoyable activities “as often as you can – read a book, work on a hobby, or watch a movie.”
Start looking into adult day programs or other respite care options if you don't feel you can slip away from your loved one.
3. Eat right
As a caregiver, what you eat can make a big difference in the amount of energy you have to power through each day and in improving or maintaining your overall health.
Research points to the health benefits and anti-inflammatory properties of a Mediterranean diet. That means plenty of leafy greens, fruit, whole grains and fish, among other foods. Strive to use food as fuel and to prevent disease, rather than for emotional off-loading and escapism.
4. Get regular exercise
Among its many benefits: Moderate amounts of physical exercise reduce inflammation (a process thought to contribute to the cell damage that underlies diabetes, heart disease and possibly Alzheimer's).
Additionally, exercise can be an excellent form of stress relief, and give you a chance to take much-needed time for yourself. Experts advise aiming for 30 minutes of physical activity each day to reap the health benefits of exercise. This doesn’t mean you have to go out and join a gym -- working in short walks around the neighborhood count too.
“Going for a morning walk or afternoon run -- even if it’s only 20 minutes -- can be the biggest stress reliever and put you in a better frame of mind,” says Battaglino.
5. Prioritize sleep
With the added stress, worry and responsibilities involved with caring for an elderly loved one, sleep is often one of the first self-care elements to go for caregivers. Still, you need seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
If reading that made you chuckle out loud, consider it a warning sign to bring in reinforcements that might improve your sleep, such as night help for your loved one or better sleep hygiene for yourself.
Unsure of where to start? Try some of the following strategies to help catch more zzz’s and improve sleep quality:
Meditate or focus on deep breathing for at least a few minutes in the morning and/or at night. This will lower your heart rate and blood pressure, preparing your body for sleep. Resist the lure of the blue light -- it can disrupt the sleep cycle. That means putting away your cell phone, tablet, computer, and any other device that emits blue light, at least one hour before bedtime.
Avoid eating big, heavy meals late in the day, and avoid or limit alcohol consumption at night, since both can be sleep disruptors. Here again, getting regular exercise during the day can help you. Studies have shown that exercise can significantly improve sleep in people with insomnia, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
6. Turn to healthy emotional outlets
These may include a support group, a therapist, an online forum for fellow caregivers, a trusted friend you can call on at any time who'll listen without passing judgments -- or, ideally, all of the above.
“If you can’t leave the house, explore Internet options,” Shrager suggests. “Internet communities are a great place to vent and ‘meet’ others in your situation. I truly believe that there is no greater advice than from someone who has been there, done that.”
When others aren’t immediately available to talk to, recording your thoughts and feelings in a journal can also help. “This can be a good outlet for frustrations,” says Shrager.
7. Maintain your social life
Strong connections to others help build your immune system. Don't give up all of your outside interests and commitments for caregiving; those that seem "least" essential because they're purely social may be the most important.
“Surround yourself with supportive people that have some common interests,” suggests Battaglino. “If you like running, find a local running group in your area or a couple of friends that like to walk or run.”
8. See your doctor
Self-care isn’t just about making time for yourself, exercising and eating well. It also means ensuring you take time for things like annual wellness exams, and understanding the results of blood tests and other health checks, says Battaglino.
And if you're a stressed caregiver, these appointments are a good catch-all time to get routine screening tests or immunizations you may be missing, assess the impact of stress, and get any needed referrals (such as to a therapist). While you’re at it, get an annual flu shot and wash your hands all day long. You can't afford to get unnecessarily sick.
“Be in touch with your own body and know when you are becoming ill or run down [and] seek medical advice in a timely manner,” Shrager advises.
Remember, self-care is not selfish. Try thinking of these acts as part and parcel of caring for your loved one. Keeping yourself in reasonably good health is part of a smart care plan not only for yourself, but for the loved one who relies on you.
As Battaglino notes, “If you don’t start taking care of yourself, you’re not going to be there to take care of your family.”