Caregivers who insist on time for themselves within a busy life have more energy and are better able to weather stress. And that allows them to be more reliable to those who depend on them.
Most caregivers like the idea of "me" time but are convinced they can't find it. You can! Start small, and dream big.
Use the following seven smart moves to refill your inner reservoir -- today and for the rest of your life.
1. Schedule it.
Don't postpone personal time, making it an afterthought or reward after you finish the day's business. Instead, include yourself in your must-dos when you plan the day -- ideally, early in the day so the time doesn't get overlooked. Plus you'll be better able to face the day if you're fully energized.
Pencil in even 15 minutes daily, for starters -- literally write it on your planner or daily to-do list. Commit to carving this same time out every day. Life coaches say it can take up to three weeks for a new habit to take hold. Devoting specific times to yourself helps you make "me" time a priority.
Make the break feel like an indulgence. That means no laundry or paying the bills. Think of something you enjoyed when you had more time, before your life got crazy. Maybe it's savoring a cup of tea (in a fine china cup!) and a brand-new paperback. Or setting up a craft table to pursue an art or craft you've abandoned.
In addition to a daily break, block out a larger span of time at least weekly to do something self-indulgent away from home. Get a massage or a manicure, wander the mall, attend a book group.
2. Say "no."
Not all requests are draining, of course. If you're tempted, get in the habit of replying, "I'm not sure; let me get back to you." Don't answer immediately; give yourself a cushion of time to reflect privately on whether the request will enhance your life or detract from it.
But also practice building up your "no" muscle. The more you express regrets or bow out, the easier it becomes the next time.
If you find it hard to refuse others (and this is true for many people with caregiver hearts), rehearse a few lines to fall back on: "I'd love to help, but I just have too much going on right now." Or, "I wish I could, but it will have to be another time." Humor helps: "If I take on even one more thing, my husband will divorce me and my hair will catch on fire."
Be especially protective if indulging a favor or taking on a new task would nip into your personal time. You'll never find enough time for yourself if you don't cordon it off.
Easy ways to find "me" time
3. Create a personal space in your home, just for you.
It could be a whole spare bedroom (think man cave . . . or girl cave!) or a desk and comfy chair in a corner. Decorate your "me zone" with meaningful mementos, a comfy quilt, your favorite photos.
Having your own personal retreat ensures you'll be more likely to head there to do something just for yourself -- watch a DVD, talk by Skype with an old high school pal, run through some yoga moves, take a power nap. Ask others in the house to respect your privacy when you're in your personal space. (It doesn't always work, but it never hurts to ask!)
When you can't get to a special space and you're feeling overwhelmed, remember that you can clear a "me zone" in your head. Close your eyes and take a few calming deep breaths. (Some people find it helpful to retreat to the bathroom to get this kind of privacy.) Or do a "mind sweep": Jot down all the things troubling you (conflicts, to-do items); the simple act of making a list releases some of the tension and helps you prioritize.
4. Spread the work around.
Spend less time on things that don't absolutely require your personal involvement by delegating, rotating, or sharing the load. For most families, even when one person is the primary caregiver, giving care is a family-wide experience.
Is there anyone in your household who can make dinner one night a week? Run a vacuum? Cut the lawn? Enlist kids as well as adults. Perhaps one person could clean up as you cook, reducing the need for a big clean after. Post a chore schedule, with everybody taking a shift. Look into sharing the marketing or a carpool with a neighbor. Consider a "parent-sitting" exchange with a friend who also has a live-in elderly parent who can't stay alone.
Important for caregivers: Don't do things for older relatives that they can still do for themselves. Too often caregivers err on the side of "helping" to excess, when activities such as cleaning or folding laundry would provide an elder with a healthful sense of usefulness and contribution.
It's fine to work side-by-side if the person in your care wouldn't be safe working alone. But resist the urge to help, hover, or take over because the job isn't meeting your standards.
5. Look for shortcuts and other streamlining efficiencies.
For one whole day, analyze the way you do all your routine tasks with an eye toward saving time. For example, paying bills online is faster than writing checks, stuffing envelopes, and mailing them. Loading different types of utensils in the same holder of the dishwasher means you don't need to sort them afterwards. They're tiny time differences, but the saved minutes add up.
Could you make lunches every other day, preparing two at a time? Plan errands for times of day when crowds are thinner (avoiding lunchtime and rush hour, for example)? Scheduling morning medical appointments, or the first appointment after lunch, means less waiting-room time, because the doctor is less likely to have gotten backed up.
Try to get your least favorite or hardest tasks out of the way early in the day, when you have more energy. That way you'll chip through more pleasant jobs during the rest of the day with a sense of accomplishment, rather than energy-draining dread.
You can also double up: Pair a task you don't like with one you do. Iron or run on the treadmill while you catch up on a prerecorded favorite TV show or reach out to a friend by cell phone to chat (and vent as needed!). If you're paying bills online, open up a second window to chat with fellow caregivers in an online forum.
If you can afford it, invest in an electronic reader (like the Kindle, iPad, or Nook). You can download new books or magazines without having to take the time to go to the library or bookstore. And you'll always have escapist reading material at your fingertips in doctors' waiting rooms, on the bus, in the bathroom, in between errands.
Creative ways to find "me" time
As much as electronic gadgets help us multitask, they can also become time-suckers that lead us to squander downtime moments we didn't realize we hand. That's how we wind up zoning in front of the TV all evening (watching something we don't even like) or flipping through Facebook for hours, and yet never feeling like we have time to ourselves.
Try starting with 15 "silent" minutes a day -- if it plugs in, unplug it or turn it off. You don't necessarily have to spend that time on yourself to feel like you've gained something. The quality of your interactions with others will seem deeper when you focus more on one another. And your psyche comes away refreshed without the chronic distraction of competing interests.
7. Buy time.
Don't underestimate the value of outsourcing. Yes, it means spending money. But your time carries a price tag, too -- and your health and peace of mind are priceless.
Weigh the costs of a biweekly cleaning service against the time you spend on such tasks now. Look into a grocery delivery service or take-out meals, which many supermarkets now offer. Pay a neighborhood kid to handle yard work and to clean gutters. Hire a neighborhood teenager to relieve you every afternoon at five for an hour, so you can take an exercise class. (Ask a local Scout troop for reliable candidates.) A free option: Local church youth groups or schools, which often require students to earn service hours by helping those in need.
Definitely look into professional caregivers, nurse's aides, and elder companions to manage eldercare. Adult day programs, for those able to attend them, are another win-win for everyone in the household. Resist the excuse that nobody can care as well as you can; this may well be true, but many paid professionals do a darn good job -- and when your sanity is at stake, that's plenty good enough.
If your budget is stretched, consider asking relatives who have offered to help if they would pay for specific kinds of relief. Many of us hate to "talk money," but long-distance caregivers who can't give their time often welcome such an opportunity to feel like they're making a difference. And when someone asks what you (or your loved one) want for your birthday or a holiday, ask for the gift of time (or the money to buy it).
The trick is to apply the time you buy toward yourself, not anything or anyone else. If an aide or a sibling spends time with your loved one on Saturday mornings, go out to do something personally meaningful during that block of time -- don't just run errands. By having short breaks from each other, you and the person you care for will both be more apt to come together again stimulated by the change and -- critical for you -- renewed.