In honor of National Family Caregivers month wrapping up this week, I’m revisiting portions of a post I originally published here a few years ago. I’ve learned even more since then and have included those additional insights. Family care giving is close to my heart as it’s been one of my roles a number of times now. Knowing how to care for myself as I cared for others was a godsend and I hope this information can be of assistance to many of you now or in the future.
Many of us care for others but don’t realize we are caregivers. We see it as our job or role as a parent, child, spouse, doctor, nurse, social worker, home health aide, therapist, teacher, manager, employer, you name it. But the giving our time, efforts and ourselves can be draining. How we care for ourselves while caring for others is often overlooked and something we all need to pay attention to, caregiver or not.
Caregivers who are paid for their efforts may think their work is done when they head home. But many of us go home to care for children, parents or other loved ones. One thing is common among caregivers: we typically put our own needs last. This may be a noble or loving gesture, but often it’s done out of a sense of duty, lack of resources or just not enough hours in the day. Whatever the reason, the practice of always putting others first as a caregiver causes undue stress. Caregiver stress is a growing national problem, one that is responsible for illness, depression and financial burden.
Caregiver stress begins to manifest in many ways: increased irritability, lack of interest in life, high blood pressure, headaches, weight gain or shallow breathing which can all eventually lead to further health issues. When a caregiver is ill, it creates even more stress not only on them but also who they are caring for-it’s a vicious cycle. This stress is a growing issue in our communities and the sooner we address it, the sooner everyone’s quality of life will improve.
- Ask for Help-As Caregivers, we think we need to do it all. But we don’t. Getting assistance from others can initially be a bit more stressful, but typically brings a needed respite. If you are a caregiver and don’t know where to turn for help, ask medical, legal, or social professionals in your area for information on resources available. There are often many paid and volunteer options. Asking family and friends to assist is also a great option. In stressful situations, many people want to help but don’t know what is needed. Allow others to help. But the first step is to ask.
- Take a breath-literally and figuratively. When caring for ill loved ones. I didn’t have time for a haircut, let alone consistently exercise, cook healthy meals or do something for myself. Sometimes, all I could do was take a deep breath. In those deep breath moments, I often prayed and found what I needed to move on. Taking time for ourselves is crucial, but those moments can be elusive. A deep breath, a few minutes of fresh air or even being in the bathroom alone can be rejuvenating. Take a moment (or two if possible) for yourself. Regroup, pray, calm yourself and breathe-you will put more oxygen into your body and brain to think and act clearly. Do it for yourself and those you care for.
- Assess your system(s). As we care for others, or even just ourselves, we develop certain ways of doing things, honed over time or necessity. But as life changes so must our way of doing things. The same way is not always the best way and different is not always bad. Fresh eyes can often bring new and needed perspective. But change is difficult, especially as we get older. Embrace change in a positive manner and over time if necessary. It may involve letting go of some patterns, people or projects to add new or needed change.
- Don’t neglect your own health. It’s important to keep our own doctor’s appointments, make time to exercise, eat and sleep well, and have a few moments to ourselves each day. If we don’t, nagging issues can turn into chronic problems which will only compound our care giving responsibilities. This is where family and friends or adding some volunteer or paid assistance is a beneficial use of resources. Taking care of the caregiver is a wise investment.
Caring for others is a joy for many of us. We see it as our life’s work and/or a precious season of life. But always giving from an unfilled bucket will eventually leave us drained. We are only given one life to live. Let’s make all our moments memorable not only for ourselves but those we care for as well.