Family caregivers hold a unique position. Often they didn’t choose their caregiver role, rather circumstances or their relationship with the person needing care thrust them into a job for which they are likely unprepared. Unlike a nurse or respite worker who clocks out at the end of a shift, a family caregiver’s job is often never-ending. Before caregiving takes over one’s life, it’s important to put self-care habits in place. One can’t provide quality care of another if they’re already lacking in that department. Consider these tips to manage self-care.
Caregiver stress develops slowly
There are three stages of caregiver stress or burnout that are common. It starts with an unconscious effort to isolate oneself from others. Through dedication to your family member or simply because you disappear into the role of a caregiver, your former life eludes you. Friends and social interaction no longer seem important, so you grow apart from everyone other than the person who needs you.
This isolation combines with feelings of ineffectiveness. Most family care situations involve permanent afflictions, or terminal illnesses. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t get better someday, it only gets worse. Optimism at the beginning of a family caregiver relationship slowly dwindles as the stark reality of disease prognosis sets in.
These feelings ultimately combine into the third stage, despair. Feelings of depression begin to pervade every moment of life when a caregiver becomes inextricably combined in the illness of the person requiring care.
Here is how to recognize when caregiver stress is rearing its ugly head:
- Lack of sleep. When you are the only caregiver, your job becomes 24/7 and your sleep is affected.
- Impatience. A sour attitude accompanies the feelings of despair common in family caregivers.
- Headaches and poor health in general. Poor health results from neglect.
- Neglecting one’s own medical care. Caregivers spend hours a month taking their loved ones to appointments, but rarely take the time to see their own doctors.
- Increase or return to bad habits, such as smoking or drinking to relieve stress.
How to diffuse the stress
Since caregiver burnout smolders, effective management tools can be found in self-care. Self-care is not a magic pill that you take once and everything becomes sunny, rather, self-care involves small steps that one takes to increase comfort and bring joy into life. It can include a moment of joy away from the caregiver role, or things that you attend to as part of your daily routine. Here are some examples:
- Exercise. Many caregivers neglect their physical fitness. Incorporate light daily exercise and you will begin to add your needs into focus.
- Stretching. Simple stretches can do a lot to relieve stress and tension, plus it can even boost your mood. Taking some time to do some simple neck, arm and leg stretches can go a long way. If you can make it a priority, add full-body stretching to your daily exercise routine.
- Balance your diet. Caregivers can have horrible diets because they spend so much of their life feeding others. Take the time to prepare healthy meals and avoid eating too much processed foods.
- Reconnect with friends. Social health is crucial for maintaining positive outlooks on life.
- Reach out for help. You probably think that you have to be the caregiver, that no one else can fill your shoes, or that assistance is too expensive. Remember, not only does this put your health at risk, but also the well-being of the person who needs care if you burn out. You might be surprised at the resources available to make your life easier.
It’s important to keep this last idea in mind – that in order to help others you sometimes have to help yourself first. Your self-care is another component of your caregiving. Take steps to increase your well-being, make your life better, more positive and healthier and your family member’s life and care will be optimized.
Don’t forget, caregiving can be a rewarding experience for your family member and you, especially if you treat each other as partners in a common goal.
Harry Cline is creator of NewCaregiver.org and author of the upcoming book, The A-Z Home Care Handbook: Health Management How-Tos for Senior Caregivers. As a retired nursing home administrator, father of three, and caregiver to his ninety-year-old uncle, Harry knows how challenging and rewarding caregiving can be. He also understands that caregiving is often overwhelming for those just starting out. He created his website and is writing his new book to offer new caregivers everywhere help and support.
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