Caring for the Caregiver: Yourself
Caregiving for loved ones is more than a full time job. It is demanding physically, emotionally and spiritually. Caregiving requires endless patience and a focus on other. Day after day, you must show up and be kind and supportive. Typically, caregiver needs take a backseat. It’s difficult to have alone time and to connect with friends because caregivers tend to be on standby at all times.
The initial reaction I got from my siblings when contemplating this article about how to “care for the caregiver” was a resounding “you can’t!” Self-care seems impossible when overwhelmed by the daily physical, financial, and emotional tasks of caring for a loved one with dementia or a terminal illness. You may even feel guilty trying to carve out time to care for yourself when your loved one is suffering.
“Caregivers, by nature, will put their needs aside in order to give their full attention to the person that needs them, says Marisa Pasquini, Certified Dementia Practitioner and author of Surviving Dementia Without Losing Your Mind. “When they take “time off,” the guilt can be overwhelming.” I believe you can and you should find ways to nurture and care for yourself—no matter how small. Like the saying goes, put the oxygen mask on yourself first in order to save the others!
First the Why:
You Matter: Your life matters. It is easy to put your own needs on the back burner when someone you love needs you, especially if they are dependent on your care for the activities of daily living. However, your quality of life is just as important.
Preventing Burnout: Your loved one needs you, therefore you have to stay resourced. You probably have others who depend on you too: a partner or spouse, children, your job. Symptoms of burnout can include: lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, and increased depression, anxiety, or both. Click here for more information on caregiver burnout.
Now the How:
Feel: feel the feelings when you can. Feel all of them: anger, fear, sadness, love, hope, and even joy—just to name a few. Sometimes this means going to therapy, calling a friend, or a family member who gets it, crying, laughing, or shouting while parked alone in your car. If you are experiencing uncontrollable feelings or suicidal thoughts, please seek help from a mental healthcare professional. Click here for 5 Signs It’s Time to Seek Therapy.
Get Help: depending upon what kind of help you need, this can be from friends, other family members, a mental healthcare provider, religious and local organizations. The local chapter of Hospice (Hospice of Santa Barbara) provides counseling and bereavement services for issues related to death and dying. Alzheimer’s Association provides education and research regarding Alzheimer’s and dementia. Both organizations can also help connect you to local community resources such as respite care, adult daycare, and more.
Do the Little Things: Get a massage, take yourself out (or these days order online) a nice meal, or go on vacation. While those can be great ways to take care of yourself, when you are in the middle of a crisis it’s also important to have small, manageable ways of caring for yourself. Often, it’s the little things that matter. A few examples include
Take a Breath: If you catch yourself holding your breath or tensing your shoulders, intentionally take a moment to relax your shoulders and take a deep breath. There are a variety of breathing techniques available to help relax you or reduce anxiety.
“Practicing mindfulness while exercising is really powerful,” says Pasquini. “Mind and body working together to relieve stress is like a double whammy of self-care–which has resulted in significant, positive shifts in the caregivers I’ve worked with.”
Exercise: Moving your body helps reduce stress, and can also reduce anxiety and depression. Finding the time can seem challenging but adding in even small amounts can be beneficial. Consider parking farther away, riding your bike to the office, taking the stairs, and going on a brisk walk as small ways to incorporate exercise into daily life.
Nutrition: The quality of the energy (food) you take in affects your energy output. Avoid the comfort foods that may feel particularly enticing when you are under stress: carbohydrates and highly processed foods. Do what you can to get the good stuff: fruits, greens, some protein. Reward yourself with foods that make you ultimately feel good.
Rest: Sleep makes all the difference! You will be clearer headed, more patient when you are rested. According to Sleep Foundation, the recommended amount of sleep for adults ages 26-64 is 7-9 hours of sleep. Repeated nights of sleep deprivation cause a sleep debt. The CDC offers several tips for good sleep hygiene:
– Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature
– Remove electronic devices, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones, from the bedroom
– Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime
– Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends
Journaling: According to Elizabeth Scott, MS, “Journaling generally involves the practice of keeping a diary or journal that explores thoughts and feelings surrounding the events of your life.” Using an appropriate method of journaling can help reduce stress during times of crisis. Click here to find more information on the benefits of journaling, including tips, exercises, prompts, and potential downsides.
The When and Where:
Start to nurture and care for yourself before burnout hits. Use this list of resources to help you get started.
Resources and Support
Marisa Pasquini authored a book called Surviving Dementia Without Losing Your Mind.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE
Lauren Cumberbatch is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Barbara. She has experience supporting teens, adults and couples through life transitions, grief and loss, relationship issues, anxiety and depression.