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Caring for yourself while caregiving for others: 5 steps to take now

Kate Ying | Nov 10, 2021 | General health

If you’re caregiving for a loved one who is a survivor of stroke or brain injury or living with Alzheimer’s or other neurological condition, you know that it can be incredibly rewarding to be part of your loved one’s journey. But it’s got its ups and downs, right? You’re there to support your loved one through the lows when the going gets rough, and that can make it even more special to witness the highs, like when a speech or cognitive goal is reached. But you may sometimes feel that your razor-sharp focus on every element of your loved one’s day leaves you feeling too burnt out to take care of yourself. You might feel frustrated, angry, guilty, or sad as a result – and sometimes all of those things at once. 

It’s important to know that you are not alone. Many caregivers feel the same way, and there are steps you can take when you’re feeling overwhelmed. In honor of National Family Caregivers Month this November, this post will discuss strategies to take care of yourself when you’re busy caregiving for your loved one. 

Caregiving is a demanding and complicated process

No one’s experience with caregiving is the same, and facing ups and downs in your emotions is natural – and not necessarily indicative of a problem. However, caregiving is also an intensely demanding process, and stress can build up over time to compromise your emotional and physical well-being. To that end, here are some warning signs to look out for: 

  • Feeling constantly anxious or stressed, or feeling like you’re always “waiting for the other shoe to drop”
  • Eating much more or much less than usual 
  • Experiencing constant fatigue, no matter how long you sleep
  • Drinking or abusing recreational drugs or prescription medications  
  • Feeling all-over pain in your body that has no clear cause 
  • Experiencing frequent mood swings or easily losing your temper 
  • Blaming yourself or the person you take care of for things that go wrong 
  • Crying more than usual 
  • Feeling hopeless about your life and your future 

Caregiving takes enormous inner and physical strength, and these signs might just be your body’s way of letting you know that it needs a little relief.

Consider these 5 steps to care of yourself while caregiving for a loved one

No single strategy will work for everyone, and you might feel too burnt out to take any time for yourself. That’s completely understandable. If you’re able to, however, trying even one small approach for five minutes a day can be helpful. Just starting somewhere is often the most powerful step toward helping yourself feel better. 

Here are 5 recommendations to mitigate your stress:

  1. Commit to doing one thing a day for yourself. Anything that you enjoy or which furthers your health goals is perfect for this, and it doesn’t have to take a long time. You might decide to complete a mindfulness practice, watch a favorite TV show, or work out. The crux is to find something that is dedicated solely to furthering your health and your happiness. Then, no matter how busy your day gets, try to carve out a few minutes of space just for you. This practice is undertaken not to optimize your capacities as a caretaker but to honor the fact that your well-being is inherently valuable, without qualification. So remind yourself while you’re doing your chosen activity that you matter not just for what you can do for your loved one as a caretaker but for who you are intrinsically. 
  2. Join a support group. While caregiving can be an isolating and lonely experience, there is true strength in numbers; it is oftentimes reassuring to realize that many people right within your community are going through a similar journey. It can be especially helpful to talk about your experiences with people who face parallel ones in their own lives. You might consider joining a support group through organizations like the Family Caregiver Alliance, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, the Brain Injury Association of America, Parent to Parent USA, or the Well Spouse Association.  There are also informal support groups organized via social media networks like Facebook. 
  3. Say yes to help. Not everyone will have the option to supplement their caregiving with help from friends, family members, or home health aides. If you do have someone in your life volunteering to help, however, try to push yourself to accept the offer. This can be a difficult step, especially if your loved one has particular routines that you don’t want to disturb. But even leaning on others for support in completing household tasks like grocery shopping can provide you a little break.  
  4. Seek counseling or mental health support. In addition to the daily demands of caregiving on your emotional and physical bandwidth, you might also still be shouldering the effects of trauma from your loved one’s health struggles. Those loads, stacked on top of each other, can quickly become overwhelming. Finding a counselor to talk to can be a highly effective strategy to process past and ongoing events. To find a therapist, you can ask friends or family for recommendations. Alternatively, try performing an online search or using this tool to find a licensed therapist near you. 
  5. Consider respite care. If you feel like you just can’t find your footing and need a little more relief than the above strategies can provide, you might consider looking into respite care. Respite care describes the broad spectrum of options for primary caretakers to temporarily transfer their caregiving duties to another individual for a short period of time in order to recharge. There is great flexibility in where this care takes place, who provides it, and how long it lasts. Options range from having a friend or at-home health aide take over caregiving for a few hours in your own home, to arranging for your loved one to stay at an adult daycare center or residential program for a few days. This can be a powerful way to replenish your energy and take some time for yourself. If there are any associated costs with the option you choose, make sure to check if your insurance will cover them. To find out more about respite care and to find local services, you might try visiting this National Respite Locator

Being the key pillar of support for a loved one living with a chronic health condition can be an amazing manifestation of your love, but it can also exact a toll on your well-being. Given that you’ve made your loved one your priority, caring for yourself can easily take a back seat to the requirements of caregiving. But it’s paramount to remember that your health and well-being are equally important, not just because they enable you as a caregiver, but because you matter, too. 

Further resources about caregiving

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