By: Rebecca Van Heuklon, DPT
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, approximately 43.5 million people have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the past 12 months. Caring for a loved one is a job that can require around-the-clock duties. While you provide the care needed because you love your family member, it can be drainng on your mental, physical, and emotional health. It puts caregivers at risk for high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression and can elicit feelings of frustration, anger, guilt, resentment, and helplessness. November is National Family Caregivers Month, so it is the perfect time to share tips on how to ease your burdens and care for you the caregiver to keep you mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy and strong for your loved one.
Stay organized. Keep medical records handy in case of an emergency, including lists of diagnoses, medications, allergies and the names of important doctors involved with your loved one’s care. Also, have health insurance information and any legal documents like a living will, Medical Power of Attorney, and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) documents readily available. In addition, have contact information ready for relevant doctor’s offices, nearby hospitals, the pharmacy, poison control, police, fire, and even a close neighbor who can come and help if needed. Having a printed version of these numbers hanging on the fridge can save valuable time and minimize stress in the event of an emergency.
Laugh often. Nothing is more therapeutic than laughter, for both you and your loved one. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter is known to stimulate the heart, lungs, muscles, and brain; relieve stress; reduce tension; improve your immune system; relieve pain; and improve your mood. Watch a funny movie, read the weekly comics, go to a comedy club, look through old photos that spur fond memories, and spend time with friends and family that make you laugh. Caring for a loved one can create some very serious and somber situations, but don’t let that eliminate times of joy and laughter from your life.
Listen to music. Music has many well-known health benefits, including stimulating the release of dopamine to make you feel happier, reducing stress by decreasing the hormone cortisol, reducing depression, decreasing stress and anxiety, aiding in sleep, improving memory, decreasing pain, and providing comfort. On days where you or your loved one is feeling down or ill, play some tunes that speak to you. Depending on the day and mood, that could be quiet, slow songs that have no lyrics or it could be songs that encourage you to sing along or tap your feet.
Create a space that is just for you. Find a place in the house that is your own private retreat. Maybe it is a place that is decorated in a way that calms you with fresh flowers and pictures or artwork that speak to you. Maybe it is quiet space that allows you to curl up on a comfy chair and escape by reading a good book. Maybe it is in the bathroom, where you can take a long soak in the tub with bath oils and candles. Maybe it is a craft, woodworking, or sewing room. Maybe it is an open space for you to meditate or do yoga. Whatever that space is, make it a place that allows you to escape the stress of your day.
Take care of your own body. Providing care for others can be challenging, especially when dealing with a health issue or pain of your own. According to a study published in Annals of Behavioral Health Medicine, people who provide care are less likely to engage in preventative healthy activities themselves. This can include not going to the doctor, not filling prescriptions due to cost, not cooking healthy meals, and not exercising. In the physical therapy clinic, I have commonly seen patients not able to take the time to heal and recover from an injury or surgery because of the physical demands of caring for their loved one. The most influential factor that will allow you to continue to provide care to your loved one at home is maintaining your own health.
Fuel your mind and spirit. You cannot provide the best care to your loved one without caring for yourself first. Self-care can be very difficult when your focus is on your loved one, but it is key in having a well-rounded life. Self-care means something different to each person. For some, it can mean spending time in nature. For others, it can mean spending time petting, cuddling, or playing with a pet. Reading a few minutes each day can be a good way to stimulate your mind. In addition, spending time with family or friends can fuel the soul. Some find it helpful to set aside time for reflection, journaling, or meditation. Indulging in the arts can also be uplifting, including listening to music, dancing, taking photographs, drawing, coloring, or going to museums or theaters. There are even painting and ceramics classes in which you can participate. Spending time attending church, Bible study, praying or connecting spiritually can also be an important way to care for yourself.
Join a support group. There are many types of support groups available, both in person and online. There are general support groups for caregivers, groups for family members with specific diagnoses, or groups that are relationship oriented (parent, child, or spouse). It can be important to hear that you are not alone and that the feelings you are experiencing are normal. It can also be helpful to learn about strategies, tips, and resources that are available to you.
Take advantage of respite services when possible. Respite services allow you to take short bouts of time off (ranging from several hours to several days) from caregiving while your loved one is being cared for by someone else. Time off is vital to keep balance and wellness in your own life and can help ease feelings of exhaustion, stress and being overwhelmed. Respite assistance can be hired on your own or through an agency. It is available both in-home and out-of-home and can be either formal or informal. The ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center has detailed information on respite care, possible funding options, and how to find respite services in your area on their website at archrespite.org.
Know when it is time to seek help. There may come a time when your loved one needs more assistance than you can safely provide. Talk with other family members and keep them updated on your loved one’s condition so they understand why you may not be able to continue providing care. Getting in-home assistance or care may be an option to keep your family member home longer, but can be expensive. Know your limits and don’t overextend, as that can result in both of you becoming injured. The most important consideration is keeping you and your loved one safe.
Know that you are doing your best. You are not perfect and you are doing everything you can for your loved one. Remember that you are only one person with only 24 hours in the day that can only do so much. Give yourself a little acknowledgement and recognition for everything you have done for your loved one. You deserve it!
Schulz, R, Newsom, J, Mittelmark, M, Burton, L, Hirsch, C, & Jackson, S. (1997). Health effects of caregiving: The Caregiver Health Effects Study: an ancillary study of The Cardiovascular Health Study. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 19: 110-116.
The Commonwealth Fund. (1999). Informal Caregiving (Fact Sheet). New York: Author.
National Alliance for Caregiving & Evercare. (2006). Evercare® Study of Caregivers in Decline: A Close-up Look at the Health Risks of Caring for a Loved One. Bethesda, MD: National Alliance for Caregiving and Minnetonka, MN: Evercare.