With the New Year upon us, now is the logical time to set goals for the 365 days ahead. It’s that fleeting time of year when gyms are packed to the brim and burgers are swapped for salads as idealistic folks determined to meet their health and fitness goals dutifully work toward their New Year’s resolutions.
New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, and that’s understandable, considering the high rate of failure. As a caregiver for a senior loved one, you may be tempted to forgo the resolutions this year. After all, why add more to your already substantial to-do list?
But chucking your healthy resolutions isn’t such a great idea. Study after study has revealed the many health risks family caregivers face - the chronic stress often caused by this role can lead to a whole host of health problems, and depression is common. If you’ve been on an airplane, you know to put on your own mask before doing the same for passengers who need your help. In everyday life, it’s the same principle - you have to help yourself before you can help anyone else.
The following resolutions address some of the common obstacles family caregivers face. Even if you only manage one or two, it just might help you be a better caregiver, not to mention a healthier, happier person.
1. Prioritize your own physical and mental health
Family caregivers tend to be big-hearted people willing to devote themselves to ensuring a loved one’s well being, often at the expense of their own health. And the chronic, daily stress experienced by many caregivers means they’re also at greater risk of many serious illnesses, from diabetes and heart disease to cancer.
It won’t be easy, but at some point, you need to make a realistic plan for yourself to look after your own physical and mental health. Make it happen this year with the help of a medical professional who can determine your most pressing health needs.
Maybe your first priority is weight loss and physical fitness, lowering your cholesterol, or finding a therapist who can help you cope with stress and boost your mental health. The sooner you take care of your own health needs, the better you’ll feel and more equipped you’ll be to care for your loved one.
2. Get more sleep
Sleep has a huge impact on overall health, yet for too many Americans, a regular good night’s sleep is nothing more than a dream. For caregivers juggling myriad responsibilities, it’s even tougher to get the recommended 7-8 hours of slumber nightly.
But getting more shut-eye is key to improving your health and happiness. Try starting small, by setting your bedtime 15 minutes earlier than usual, then add another 15 minutes and so on until you’re logging at least 7 hours of sleep.
3. Schedule more “me” time
Time for yourself is a rare commodity for most family caregivers. When you’re not caring for your loved one, you’re taking on other responsibilities. Carving out some time just for you — at least once a week — is essential for your health and well-being.
Respite care can give you some much-needed time off while ensuring your loved one is in good hands. There are plenty of forms of respite care available today, from asking a trusted loved one for help to adult day care or short-term assisted living stays.
4. Spend more quality time with your loved one
If you’re like many family caregivers, you’re so busy taking care of your loved one’s daily needs that you’re not really spending quality time together. Rather than letting the hours with your loved one get consumed by monotonous care tasks, make a point of creating fond memories with that person.
Planning a fun activity once a week with your loved one that gives the time to connect is a good start. That could include looking over old photo albums together, baking, exploring a local museum, or going on a scenic drive. Whatever the activity, make it something you can both enjoy together that takes you out of the daily care routine.
5. Plan for your loved one's future care
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but there will likely come a day when you’re no longer able to care for your loved one. This may happen due to your own physical limitations, or as their symptoms become too advanced for you to handle alone.
Planning ahead and researching care options for your loved one could save a lot of time and stress in the future. Depending on your situation, that may mean finding in-home care or an assisted living community that fits your loved one's needs. And while no one wants to contemplate it, it’s wise to designate an alternate person to care for your loved one in your will.
A version of this article was originally published on The Huffington Post.