By Jessica Roberts, Intern 2015
What if I offered you a job that included no pay or benefits, required 24-hour availability, required you to learn basic medical care, and made it difficult for you to tend to your own basic needs? Would you take it?
If you have a grandparent, parent, or child, you likely have experience with caregiving. 34 million Americans are unpaid caregivers, with the typical provider (according to the CDC) as a college-educated 46-year-old woman assisting her mother around 20 hours a week.
As the name suggests, caregivers assist someone who has one or more significant impairments with daily living activities. Since most caregivers are typically family members, the role is often unpaid, but is as demanding as a full-time job.
Oh, and that’s often in addition to a person’s actual job.
Anyone who has cared for another human, whether their own infant or an aging parent, knows that caregiving is one of the most demanding positions out there. Preserving another person’s quality of life involves considerable physical effort, learned medical knowledge, financial investment, and time. You may not have lots of time and money left over to nurture yourself, but there are a few things you can do to survive this period with your own health and wellness intact.
Caregiving is frequently a part of women’s lives, a social and personal expectation to assist an aging parent, a chronically ill partner, a disabled sibling, or a special-needs child. While it is not uncommon for sons and husbands to provide care, women, specifically daughters, are the most called-upon relative to act as a caregiver to an aging parent. Moreover, a woman doesn’t necessarily nominate herself. Rather, in the case of assisting her mother, she is often identified years in advance as the best candidate for the task.
It’s easy for these caregivers to unknowingly neglect their own health and well-being. 57% of caregivers report skipping visits to the doctor because they put their care recipient’s needs before their own. 49% report being “overwhelmed,” with up to 70% meeting the criteria for clinical depression.
So how can a caregiver make sure to take care of themselves as well? Here are five tips for taking care of your physical and mental health when you are caring for another:
1. Make and keep medical appointments
If you do nothing else, make scheduling and keeping your own medical appointments a priority. Get health concerns addressed by a doctor, get to the dentist, stay on top of refilling your medication, and ask for a referral to a counselor if you need to talk with someone. The Affordable Care Act offers several provisions to caregivers as well as for care recipients, if limited financial means are a factor.
You can’t take care of anyone if you aren’t staying on top of your own health. Moreover, caregiving is only one aspect of your life. Staying in fighting shape allows you to function in and enjoy your own life, including your hobbies, going to work, and spending time with loved ones.
2. Make time to honor your basic needs
Part of monitoring your own condition is taking care of your own needs. Are you finding the time to eat nourishing food? If cooking isn’t a realistic option, do you have access to foods other than take-out or fast food? Could you set up a meal train to share food preparation responsibilities with a larger group, or ask a local church or volunteer group to assist you with meals? Are you drinking enough water?
How much sleep are you getting? For some caregivers, waking one or more times in the middle of the night to provide care is inevitable. That means you either need to make the most of the little sleep you can get by practicing good sleep hygiene, or make up for it in the day with catnaps.
Are you moving? I will never say you need to go to the gym every day or have some rigorous exercise regimen. False. But our bodies do benefit from movement. Can you get in a short walk or a bike ride, or lift some weights at home? You need to stay strong so that you can continue to perform the physical aspects of caregiving without hurting yourself, and the mood-boosting effects of activity will help you power through challenging days.
3. Recognize and reduce stressors
Looking out for the safety and well-being of another person is hardly a low-pressure job — which is partly why caregivers tend to have high rates of depression, anxiety, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Still, there are ways to reduce your overall stress.
Repeat after me: I will take some time for myself.
No, I don’t mean time to go to the doctor or dentist — we already talked about that. I’m encouraging you to find outlets that help you cope when the stress becomes too much. Make time for a beloved hobby, call a friend, attend religious services or some kind of social event, garden, or read. Enlist a family member or friend, or work with a local volunteer group to set up regular breaks.
Yes, it’s a matter of asking for help. And yes, you deserve the time off.
4. Set goals
Caregiving can feel like an endless, thankless task. But you are accomplishing important things every day, whether you realize it or not. One way to put this into perspective is to establish goals for yourself, to feel like you are working toward a defined objective.
You can decide what feels right. They might be practical goals: Today I am going to clean the bathrooms. Tomorrow I will tackle the laundry. By the end of the month, I will make a new garden bed out front.
They can be financial: I will save X amount of dollars every week to go towards purchasing / paying off Y.
If you have a career or hobby that needs attention, you might create daily or weekly objectives.
Remember, feeling like you are behind financially, with housework, or professionally is a stressor too. If it’s feasible financially, consider hiring help with your own housework, or seek out in-home assistance for your care recipient. Although you are not required to, it might help to disclose your situation to a boss or supervisor if you find yourself falling behind on the job. Speak with a church office or volunteer group about getting some assistance with meals, time off, or your budget.
5. Seek and accept help
You cannot do everything by yourself. Sorry. You just can’t.
If you’re in the financial position to hire a housekeeper, babysitter, or aide, consider letting someone else come in and give you some time off a few times a week.
If you can’t afford assistance, there are still plenty of free sources of help you can consider. Hospitals, churches, independent volunteer organizations, and trades with neighbors are other ways to arrange for extra help when you need it.
Caregiving isn’t about doing it all solo; it’s about providing the best possible care to another person while sustaining your own quality of life. Asking for help protects both the recipient and you from burnout, poor health, and being under-resourced.
Caregivers can find strength and guidance in speaking with someone about their situation, be it a counselor, doctor, religious advisor, or trusted confidante.
Caregiving is a noble calling, and not everyone is even offered the choice to accept or refuse. If circumstances require you to provide round-the-clock care for a spouse, parent, or child yourself, you are at risk of neglecting your own equally important health and emotional needs.
It requires a little planning, and you might feel guilty at times, but remember to ask for help when you need it. Take some time for yourself. Trust that you are a better caregiver when you factor self-care into the overall equation.