Take Time for Yourself

Once you make yourself and your health a priority, you will find that you feel better. You may get sick less often or sleep better. You may even enjoy your caregiving tasks more than before. In any case, you are a better caregiver when you focus on your own health first.

Are you struggling to find time to yourself as you care for an aging family member? You certainly would not be the first caregiver to search for a balanced lifestyle, and unfortunately, you won’t be the last. According to the Office on Women’s Health, caregivers report much higher levels of stress than peers who are not in a caregiving role. The stress of caregiving or coordinating care, coupled with your own family or work obligations, can create the perfect environment for physical and mental ailments to grow. Without finding the proper balance and intentionally setting time for self-care practices, you increase the risk of seeing negative health consequences.

The Truth About Caregiver Stress

The average family caregiver may think they are not living with more than average stress. However, statistics and research about caregivers say otherwise. The Family Caregiver Alliance notes that 40% of all caregivers are in “high-burden” situations, with 91% of those caregivers providing more than 21 hours of care per week. The Office on Women’s Health states that most family caregivers are unpaid and feel like they are “on call” at all hours of the day. Juggling care tasks, along with a 40 hour work week and other personal obligations can feel impossible on most days for even the most seasoned caregivers.

Caregiver stress is not just an inconvenience, but a major public health concern. Stress from caregiving tasks can lead to an increased risk of mental health issues including depression or anxiety. Women are more likely to be caregivers and are also more likely to develop depression or anxiety from a caregiving role. This combination can also increase the risk of stroke or heart attack.

In addition to mental health consequences, caregiving stress can take a serious toll on physical health. Caregivers are more likely to have a weakened immune system, to be obese, and to have a chronic disease than their non-caregiving counterparts, according to the Office on Women’s Health.

Finally, caregiver stress can also negatively affect cognitive health. Some caregivers report having difficulty paying attention during daily tasks, as well as having decreased short-term memory.

While the truth of caregiver stress can seem scary, there are tangible ways for caregivers to stay healthier during their difficult role. Assuring you take time for yourself and practice regular self-care can keep you healthy and can give you the energy to do your tasks well.

Why Is Finding Time For Yourself Important?

In an airplane, you are always supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first, and before helping others. It is true in caregiving as well. Without a caregiver who is healthy, energetic, and ready to take on the day, an aging adult will simply not get the best care possible. Spending time away from your caregiving role can be your “oxygen mask”, returning you to your caregiving tasks with energy and a positive attitude.

When you are a caregiver, either providing direct care or coordinating care from afar, it must be your top priority to take care of yourself. This could mean making sure you get enough rest (caregivers are at an increased risk for insomnia or unhealthy sleep practices) or making a doctor appointment for your regular checkup. In any case, making time for yourself and your own health will help you be a better caregiver to the people you love most.

Ideas for Self-Care Practices

When you take time for yourself, away from your caregiving role, it can be tempting to think your time away should be filled with massages and a spa visit. However, your time away does not have to be anything in particular, and it can look different from one month to the next. The key is to do something that does not require you to be in a caregiver role. For example, running to the grocery store alone to pick up food for your aging loved one is a good thing to do, but it isn’t self-care. It’s another care task.

Here are a few ideas that could help you begin to brainstorm how you need to recharge and refuel during this season.

Move your body

Exercise is a wonderful way to care for yourself. Not only can regular exercise keep you feeling physically healthy, the natural release of endorphins can make you feel emotionally great as well. Try going for a walk every morning or a bike ride a few times per week. Yoga classes can be a wonderful physical exercise while giving you the bonus of focused relaxation or meditation. Consider taking up Zumba or another group class at your local YMCA, or experiment with CrossFit at a nearby gym. Not only does a group class or CrossFit experience offer exercise, you can also benefit from the encouragement of a community of peers.

Care for your body

Your physical health is important. However, between making medical appointments for your loved one, it can be easy to forget regular care for yourself. Make an appointment for your yearly physical, along with your semi-annual dental checkup and your annual OBGYN (or men’s health) appointment. Visit the eye doctor for your yearly checkup, visit your therapist, and make any outstanding appointments for any specialist you see. Write the appointments in ink in your personal calendar and commit to keeping up with your own health appointments moving forward.

Rest your body

When is the last time you felt rested? Caregivers are sometimes burning the candle at both ends, making sleep inconsistent or entirely elusive. Self-care includes sleep, whether that is sleeping in once per week or sneaking in a nap after work.

Find a peer group

Social connection is important to all humans, at all ages. Caregivers can often feel isolated and can choose to skip a dinner date with a pal due to exhaustion. Self-care includes spending time with an encouraging group of peers. This could include your friends at Book Club or a circle of other caregivers at a support group. In any case, find a friend or two who will walk this path with you, and make a commitment to engage with them regularly.

Do something you love

Self-care practices include hobbies or things you love to do. Spend three hours watching a movie at the theater in the middle of the day or take time to crochet on your couch. Read a favorite book, hike a new trail, or listen to your favorite classical music. Investing in this time is well worth it, and you will feel energized and inspired.

Take care of that to-do list

While completing tasks during your time away from your caregiving role is not something you should do each time, checking off a to-do list every once in a while can make you feel great. Spend a few hours each month getting stuff done - extra laundry, back to school shopping for your kids, mailing a care package to your niece in college, running to the post office to buy stamps, or taking the dog to the vet. You will love the feeling of accomplishment and completing these items can free up your time (and brain space) for other things.

How to Find Time for Yourself

Taking time for practicing self-care is hard, but once you recognize the importance of it, you can make the time a priority on your personal calendar. Here are a few ways you can make finding time for yourself a bit easier during your caregiving journey.

Schedule it

Write down your time away on your calendar, and don’t change it. Instead, plan your other daily or weekly tasks around your own self-care. If you feel guilty at first, know that in a few months, you will realize that your calendar is more balanced.

Ask for help

In order to take time for yourself, you will need people to help you fill in the caregiving gaps. Ask for help from other family members, neighbors, or friends. Consider asking the neighbor to pop in for a safety check on your loved one while you are at your morning yoga class, or ask the church fellowship group to drop off dinner once a week while you go home to rest.

Hire help

If your loved one requires extensive assistance that others cannot provide, or if you are planning a trip and need more help, hire a caregiver from a home-health agency. Most home-health organizations offer respite services, made to give family caregivers a well-deserved break.

Write about it

Taking time away from your caregiving role, for a few hours or a few days, can come with a mix of emotions. Instead of focusing on how you feel leading up to the time away, write down how you feel after you take the time for yourself. It can be a powerful reminder of the importance of self-care when you read in your own words how much better you feel after some time away.

Once you make yourself and your health a priority, you will find that you feel better. You may get sick less often or sleep better. You may even enjoy your caregiving tasks more than before. In any case, you are a better caregiver when you focus on your own health first.


Sources:
  • Office on Women’s Health. (2 March 2018). Caregiver stress. Retrieved from https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/caregiver-stress
  • Family Caregiver Alliance. (2016). Caregiver statistics: Demographics. Retrieved from https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-statistics-demographics
  • Family Caregiver Alliance. (2012). Taking care of you: Self-care for family caregivers. Retrieved from https://www.caregiver.org/taking-care-you-self-care-family-caregivers
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