Caring for the Caregiver Tips
Caring for yourself is one of the most important – and overlooked things – a caregiver can do for themselves and their loved one(s)! If your mind, spirit and body are not well it will be difficult to care yourself never those who need you. When oxygen masks fall from the overhead compartment on a plane what do you do first? You are taught to place the mask over your face first and then attend to others second. Why? Once you are properly cared for only then can you effectively benefit or care for others.
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, over 43 million caregivers have provided unpaid care services to children and adults in 2015. That represents a large and growing population, especially among seniors, that need ongoing care. This care primarily comes from family members who selflessly provide that service out of love. (1)
Unfortunately, many family caregivers do not take proper care of themselves. Their generosity of spirit and desire to give their loved one the best care possible is often at the detriment of their own health. The combination of prolonged stress, physical demands, illness possibilities, and possibly juggling outside work and children can lead to:
- depression and other mental health conditions
- chronic physical illness (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, etc.)
- poor eating habits
- sleep deprivation
- lack of medical attention for yourself
- lack of spiritual attention for yourself
- family alienation (not spending enough time with other family members, especially children)
- financial strain
- decreased quality of life or even earlier death.
Being a caregiver can be very rewarding. Providing much needed comfort and support for a loved one is core to family values. While caregivers may be so focused on providing the best care possible they may not see their own health and well-being declining. We need to recognize the signs stress levels are rising or caregiver health is suffering:
- Showing irritation or anger to all those around you
- Feeling fatigued or tiring often
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Feeling overwhelmed or worrying a lot
- Losing interest in personal, family and community activities
- Feeling sad, anxious or depressed
- Experiencing frequent aches and pains (headaches, stomach aches, other body pains)
- Abusing alcohol or medications
- Gaining or losing weight
- Personal or family financial problems
Barriers to Addressing Caregiver Stress
While caregivers are usually loving, caring and selfless people they can also be their own worst enemy. They may put their own needs last, planning to get around to making medical appointments, exercising, paying bills, or trying to make the next family event after they feel the need to give absolutely everything to satisfy their loved one’s needs. This attitude and belief may be a lifelong pattern of behavior that may not be easily acknowledged and challenged. While this type of person has very admirable qualities, addressing this stressful barrier can be challenging. The caregiver needs to identify what is it at the core of the barrier:
- Do you overcompensate in providing care thinking you need to please the recipient?
- Do you have a perfectionist attitude thinking everything on the list has to be done each day?
- Are you afraid to compensate with the recipient so that both sets of needs are met?
- Are you afraid someone may think you are selfish if you put some of your needs first (remember the oxygen mask)?
- Do you think you can always put your needs off until you actually need to deal with them?
Sometimes caregivers inflict stress on themselves by falsely believing things like:
- I am solely responsible for my loved one’s health
- We can’t afford paid care so I am forced to provide all the care myself
- The more I do for my loved one, the more love and gratification I will get
- If I don’t take care of my loved one, no one will.
- I promised my dad, mom, aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather I would take care of their spouse (my family).
Caregivers can also sabotage their physical and mental health with negative self-talk. Telling yourself you are too slow that you can’t reward yourself or telling yourself the mountain of caregiver work is too high that you don’t have time to do anything for yourself. You need to arrange your day to include time for you. Changing your thought process is difficult but necessary to giving yourself positive self-talk to keep stress at a minimum.
Remind yourself that there will be things outside your control in which you can only do your best. Any of the beliefs outlined above can leave a caregiver striving for the unattainable. This will only end up causing frustration and feelings of failure. You need to ask yourself is there anything listed here or perhaps something else that is driving you so hard thus causing a barrier of self-care?
Strategies for Coping With Caregiver Stress
Tip #1 – Clear Communications
Clear communications with your loved one is essential. God gave us two ears and one mouth meaning we should listen twice as much as we speak. Tell your loved one how you feel and what you need to be at your best so you can provide beneficial care to them.
Don’t assign blame and be respectful. Don’t invalidate, dismiss or violate their rights concerning their feelings, illness or condition. Unless you are dealing with a loved one that has Alzheimer’s or dementia, which will make the communication more difficult, speak clearly and honestly about balancing your needs with their needs.
Tip #2 – Set Goals
Setting goals is an important step in identifying your needs and planning how you will carry out those goals. Make a list of items or tasks you wish to complete and set a realistic time and date you wish to achieve them. Prioritize your list of tasks that can reached first thus moving towards completion of our goals. For example, set a goal of making your body more healthy and then set a task to walk or exercise three days a week for 10 minutes.
Other goals that can help with maintaining or improving your health may include having someone else provide the caregiver duty once a week for you or perhaps getting someone else to cook a meal(s) for you and your loved one. Make your immediate family a priority and schedule time for family activities that promote bonding and wellness. There are many areas where you can re-prioritize the schedule so that tasks include items that promote your own health and wellness while still providing quality care for your loved one.
Tip #3 – Ask for Help
Have you considered asking for help? Have you turned down offers of help because you believe you can handle everything yourself? Don’t wait until you are stressed and overwhelmed to ask for assistance.
Make a list of areas where you could use help. Are there family members or close friends who could pitch in and cook, drive, do shopping, do laundry, clean, pay bills, take walks or simply site with your recipient while you take a much needed break? Share this list with other when they are in a good frame of mind to consider your request. Explain simply and honestly that taking this break is necessary to your health and your continued service to your loved one. Remember, not everyone may be enthusiastic about jumping in and helping right now. Ask them to consider it and give you a reply shortly. They may be more receptive after they’ve had time to see how their assistance can benefit the loved one and yourself and made provisions for it in their schedules.
Tip#4 – Talk to the Physician(s)
Nearly half of family caregivers will be required to administer medication to their loved one. This may be over the counter or prescription medications. Caregivers will need to consult the physician about what medications they need to take, how often it needs to be taken, how is it refilled and who to turn to for assistance. Administering and tracking medications is an important task for the caregiver. The physician or nurse may ask that you keep a medical records chart, recording each time medication is administered. This is particularly important if you have several family members sharing care responsibilities. You will also need to coordinate any office visits, medical procedures, hospital visits or stays and medical insurance information. This aspect of care can be time consuming and stressful.
You also need to consider conversations with the physician or other healthcare staff about your own health in caring for a loved one. While it is important to share experiences in providing care for another it is equally important the physician monitor your health needs so that you can continue to provide the best care possible for your loved one. Be upfront with the physician or healthcare team on what is and is not working for you and how it can be addressed. (Remember the oxygen mask?)
Tip #5 – Exercise
You may be reluctant to start an exercise regimen if you feel too tired after caring for a loved one all day. However, did you know that exercise promotes better sleep, releases tension and depression and increases energy and alertness? You don’t need a gym membership to exercise (unless that is your preferred routine). Walking is probably one of the best exercises you can do to keep that energy flowing. Perhaps you and your loved one, if they are capable of walking a distance, can schedule some stretching exercises and a short walk a couple days a week to help invigorate both of you.
You can also turn household chores into small exercise routines. Dancing to music while cleaning, lifting with a laundry basket, going up and down the stairs a couple times, etc. can help increases those energy levels. Whatever activity you choose, make it enjoyable and repeatable to get your exercise quota in for the week.
If you prefer a different kind of exercise regimen you could use a regular gym or find an exercise program like swimming, Yoga, Pilates or even Tai Chi. Find one that you enjoy and can maintain to keep your mind and body healthy.
Another enjoyable activity is relaxation through meditation or prayer where you can hone inner quiet and peace. Some even choose relaxation through lesser known techniques such as Reiki or Tapping. Find what works for you to keep your spirit lifted and your health rejuvenated.
Tip #6 – Eating Well
Food is energy. The right foods can boost and sustain your energy levels. The wrong foods can mess with your body’s ability to regulate itself thus causing sugar crashes and diminished energy level. Choose to eat healthy fruits, vegetables and protein sources (meat, cheese, nuts, etc.) while minimizing carbohydrates. Avoid sugar based foods and drinks, processed foods and fast food restaurant items. You can also choose non-GMO and organic foods for even healthier options.
Take time to cook these healthy foods making extra when possible so you can freeze leftovers for quick meals later in the week. You can find many healthy (and quick) recipes on the web. You and your loved one will definitely feel and function better when consuming healthier food choices!
Tip #7 – Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep is essential to functioning well during the day. Caregivers are usually very busy during their day and when corners need to be cut, sleep is often compromised. When you cut corners on sleep you will compromise the quality of care provided to your loved one, feel exhausted at the end of your day and possibly find it difficult to fall asleep at night. A good night’s sleep is in the 7 to 9 hour continuous range.
Try to schedule your sleep during the same hours each night so your body can develop a sleep routine. Don’t engage in computer, which includes all electronic media devices, activities before going to bed. The blue light emitted from these devices suppress the production of melatonin, which is necessary to induce sleep. Instead the blue light stimulates the alpha waves in the brain to stay alert. Stay away from alcohol, large meals and sugary desserts before bed. Try a warm bath or something relaxing instead before heading off to bed.
If your sleep is disrupted by a bad night for your loved one, plan to take naps during the day to restore your energy. Sometimes a power nap of 20 minutes can be enough to re-energize your mind and body so that you can continue to provide your quality of care.
Tip #8 – Look for Solutions
Normally family will look to other family members and close friends to help provide care for their loved one. However, extended family may not be available or their work schedules prohibit providing care during the times needed. Other considerations may need to be examined to see if any are feasible. One option might include moving the loved one into your home or you moving in with your loved one to make care closer and available more hours. You will need to evaluate your financial situation and condition of both homes to determine if you can afford to consolidate homes and if they are safe enough for your loved one to navigate.
You might want to investigate forms of respite care, such as Adult Daycare Programs where your loved one can enjoy time working on group activities, activities that foster learning for those with early Alzheimer’s or dementia and physical activities to keep the body as fit as possible.
You can also consider Home Healthcare Programs to supplement for hours you cannot provide direct care for your loved one. You can from an agency where they screen and assign caregivers based on your loved one’s needs or you can advertise for a caregiver either through a screened state healthcare workers database or local job posting board.
If you are unsure what might work for your situation you could seek out recommendations from:
- Your local Senior Community Center
- Support groups on Caregiver.org available to caregivers
- Available resources on Eldercare.gov to caregivers locally
- Support groups on the National Alzheimer’s Organization available to those caring for dementia patients
- Treatment and support resources on Cancer.org available locally to caregivers and patients
- Family Caring resources available on AARP
- ARCH National Respite Network
Check out our article “Is Aging in Place an Option?” for more information on care decisions and options.
Tip #9 – Listen to Your Emotions
You are human, filled with feelings and emotions. We enjoy feelings of satisfaction, gratitude, success and peace. However, there will be times other feelings and emotions will surface that may be negative. You need to recognize when those feelings start taking a foothold. Those may be feelings of frustration, being overwhelmed, disappointment, guilt, resentment, anger or even dread. Listen to those emotions and identified what is causing them. Has something changed in the environment that places an additional burden on you? Are feeling more stressed? Do you need help regaining control of the environment?
Try to identify what has changed and seek out your support system – your physician(s), additional family members and friends, local support groups, etc. – to help you regain balance. Perhaps you need to work with your loved one to renegotiate levels of care and support so that you can regain that mental and physical well-being. Listening to your emotions, especially the negative ones, and taking action immediately is key to keeping both you and your loved one in a happy place.
Note: do not allow your emotions to drop into a depression state, especially if you are starting to have suicidal thoughts. Get help immediately from your healthcare professional! In fact you should read more about depression before you believe you are depressed and identify how you can treat it.
Tip #10 – Work Life Balance
If you hold an outside job and try to juggle that job with caregiving and possible immediate family life you are not alone! Approximately 60% of people providing care for a loved one also juggle time with an outside job. (2) This can be particularly challenging if you don’t have an understanding supervisor or company. However, many companies are beginning to understand an employee may now need to juggle time for care of a new child in addition to a senior loved one.
If you find yourself in this scenario there may be things your employer can do to help you manage this work life balance. Talk to your supervisor or HR department and let them know your situation. Ask about any and all options available to employees who need to spend time caring for a new child, a senior loved one or both.
- Telecommuting – if your job does not involve front line customer service your company may allow you to work from home one of more days per week. They may pay for the computer and service or you may have to pay for this option. Telecommuting may also allow for staggered hours so you can provide care for loved ones in the hours needed. This option requires discipline and a clear understanding of how and when you meet the necessary deliverables for your company.
- Reassignment – if your company has several branch offices and your loved one lives near a remote branch, your employer may allow you to either temporarily or permanently transfer to the remote branch to complete your work.
- Change Work Hours – this option depends on when your employer requires you to onsite for work. Some employers allow flex work time, job sharing or temporary reduction in hours. This could you allow to work a compressed schedule, such as 4-10 hour days, or working afternoons so you can provide home care in the mornings or even reducing your hours to work less hours each day.
- Taking Leave – some companies allow employees to use sick leave (and vacation time) to care for a loved one. Some employees use the Federal law that allows them to take off a set period of time while the employer protects the return to their exact position once leave is complete. The common FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) option allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for family without loss of job and benefits.
Tip #11 – Find Support for Yourself
It is important to locate a caregiver support group in your local community where you can hear and validate your needs and feelings about being a family caregiver, especially if you are new to caregiving. These folks could help you solve some of your problems, provide additional resources to address other issues identified with your support and possibly help you find supplemental care for your loved one. You may also learn about additional services not previously considered, such as special transportation options, meal delivery and housekeeping services. Start with you local Senior Community Center or Healthcare provider.
It is also important to connect with a local caregiver support group that may specialize in the illness or condition you may be treating. This could be monitoring and treatment information for someone with Diabetes or caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia. These people know the challenges in caring for people with advanced conditions, especially those with debilitating mental health conditions. They can be a strong support center for sharing and validating your feelings when providing care for a loved one with these advanced conditions.
You should also try to emotional support from within your family too. Keep them posted on any changes to your loved one’s condition. If they can’t provide direct care themselves find out if they will be there for your emotional well-being while you continue to provide the best direct care possible.
Caring for the Caregiver Tips Summary
Remember the oxygen mask instructions? You need to take time and make sure you are in the best mental and physical shape to care for your loved one. It is not a selfish act. It is a necessity to provide beneficial care to your loved one. Let’s review the key tips to keep your caregiving skills in tip top shape:
- Clear communications– be respectful and clearly identify the problem and a solution that works for both of you when obstacles appear
- Set Goals– set goals and develop a task list of activities that will help you maintain a healthy mind and body
- Ask for Help– Find other family members or close friends to share caregiving responsibilities with you or at least take on tasks to free you up for care for self or loved one
- Talk to Physician(s)– talk to loved one’s physician to document medication administration and to provide health support information to you in your caregiving efforts
- Exercise– find time to engage in exercise, meditation, or stretching like Tai Chi, Pilates or Yoga
- Eat Healthy– eat fresh nutritious food, avoid processed and sugared food and drinks
- Get Enough Sleep– set a regular sleep schedule getting 7 to 9 hours
- Look for Solutions– identify adult daycare program, home health workers and possible family to share care
- Listen to Your Emotions– listen to what your mind and body are telling you and make adjustments to maintain good mental and physical health
- Work Life Balance– talk to your employer about job changes that could be beneficial to both your care needs and work requirements
- Find Support for Yourself– look for specific local caregiver support groups to help combat negative feelings and find additional care support options
Are you a caregiver? Share your tips and tricks to combat stress and taking the best care of yourself!
To Your Improved Health…
- Mayo Clinic – Caregiver stress: Tips for taking care of yourself
- Family Caregiver Alliance – Taking Care of YOU: Self-Care for Family Caregivers
- Family Caregiver Alliance – Depression and Caregiving
- Christiane Northrup, M.D. – 10 Ways to Care For Yourself When Caring For Loved Ones
- (1) Family Caregiver Alliance – https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-statistics-demographics
- (2) AARP – Caregiver Life Balance