If you’re providing unpaid care to another adult with health needs, you’re not alone. In fact, almost one in five people serve as home caregivers in the United States, and the number is rising. While many are able to balance their caregiving duties with the rest of their lives, nearly a quarter of caregivers report that their own health has worsened as a result of providing care. The reasons vary depending on the case, though it’s clear that caregivers must prioritize their own health to better help those around them.
Whether you’re helping a spouse manage the symptoms of Alzheimer's or a parent overcome their mobility issues, the strain of caregiving is real. In fact, research shows that caregiving family members have an increased risk of death, and as many as 50% of them are clinically depressed.
The physical and mental demands of the role vary from person to person, in terms of both type and severity. Take a look at some of the most common signs of caregiver burnout here:
If you’re providing regular care to a family member, the first step is learning how to support yourself. The strategies outlined below can be effective at any stage of the caregiving process, whether you’re already feeling burned out or if you’re looking to take proactive steps to prevent burnout.
Taking a break is a great way to collect your thoughts and feelings to provide better, more focused care. The problem is that a caregiver’s schedule can be hectic, and often they are too distracted to enjoy the downtime they get.
That’s why scheduling breaks, rather than just taking them haphazardly, is the best way to go. It doesn’t matter if it'0s only 10 minutes of meditation in a quiet space or an hour's walk under the summer sun. The key is finding a place in your schedule where it won’t get moved or canceled. Make sure to schedule enough of them throughout your weekly routine, so you always have a little something to look forward to.
Don’t underestimate the physical demands of filling a caregiver role. Even if you’re just helping a loved one carry in groceries or tidy their house, adding such responsibilities on top of your regular ones can quickly lead to exhaustion. This makes it especially important to pay close attention to your physical and mental health.
Healthy habits like getting quality sleep, eating well, exercising, and taking breaks are good places to start. These will ensure you start each day feeling fresh and ready to take on your responsibilities. While it may not always be easy to get in extra exercise, smart solutions like a compact pedal exerciser can make it easier.
When it comes to mental health, working with a therapist is an idea worth considering. Meditation and deep breathing exercises are other simple ways to set your mind at ease.
Sometimes, even if you’re working at peak physical and mental health, one person alone isn’t enough to get the job done. To avoid caregiver burnout it is crucial that caregivers are aware of their limitations and know when to ask for help. The hard part is knowing where to draw the line and get others involved. Pay close attention to how your caregiving role is affecting your overall health, and don’t be afraid to reach out when you start to feel overwhelmed.
Also, be aware that help can take many forms. Other family members are a good place to start. Neighbors, spouses, and hired professionals can be other resources to draw on. When more than one person pools their time and resources, a job that feels monumental can become more manageable.
One other resource to keep in mind is your patient’s physician. Don’t forget that they are trained to oversee the health of the patient as well as their caregiver. Ideally, good communication with doctors is a solid foundation for a caregiving partnership.
Much of the stress that comes with being a caregiver is a result of taking on more responsibilities than you’re able to handle. While you may be able to balance everything on paper, in reality, it’s not always so easy. That means you should build in extra time when scheduling caregiver duties, even for simple tasks. More complicated ones like driving to appointments should be spread out, so you don’t feel rushed.
You can also clear extra space in your day by replacing some responsibilities with simpler alternatives. Arrange autopayment on your loved one’s bills, subscribe to a meal delivery service, or connect them to public transportation to take some of the burden off your shoulders.
Finally, learn where to draw boundaries and stick to them. Don’t take on extra responsibilities that you don’t have time for, and learn not to feel guilty about refusing. If that means you need to miss a family gathering or skip a regular visit, then that’s up to you.
One of the cornerstones of good mental health is keeping a healthy social life. In fact, older adults who neglect their social lives are at a greater risk of worsening their cognitive health. Unfortunately, time with friends and romantic partners is one of the first things to go when we take on extra responsibilities.
Luckily, there’s no reason you have to completely neglect your social life, even if your schedule seems full. Even a short call with a friend, a scheduled dinner with family, club meetings, or exercise classes can be fast and convenient ways to get your regular dose of social time. As you learn to better manage your schedule, you can progressively add more invigorating things to your week.
Especially after you’ve settled into a routine of providing care for another person, it can be hard to maintain the boundaries between your work and your personal life. In some cases, unhealthy patterns of relating can form, harming both the patient and the caregiver. Breaking these patterns only gets more difficult with time, as caregivers are prone to feelings of guilt when they try to disengage.
In these cases, it’s important to remember that your patient’s health depends on yours and that neglecting your own physical and mental health affects them too. Some caregivers express unhealthy patterns of thinking, such as feeling responsible for a parent's health or a desire to earn attention and affection by providing care.
As we’ve seen, caring for someone can be just as big a strain on emotional health as it is on physical health. In the same way as caring for your body, it’s important to keep a positive attitude to provide the best care possible. Avoid negative self-talk statements such as “I always mess things up.” and “My schedule is always a mess” and instead choose positive statements. This can help give you a sense of control over the situation and replace feelings of frustration.
Strong communication skills are one of the greatest assets a caregiver can have. They allow you to work more effectively with your patient and access resources to help them and yourself.
When practicing effective communication, it’s important to always be assertive, clear, and constructive. Focus on what you are trying to achieve by communicating, and don’t lose sight of that goal, even if you meet resistance. Rather than sending hints or expecting the other person to understand your intentions, always be clear and specific. This also means being a good listener and taking the other person’s feelings into account.
One useful technique is to use ‘I’ messages rather than ‘you’ messages. For example, rather than saying “you hurt my feelings,” say, “my feelings were hurt.” This can be a good way to express your feelings without casting blame on other people.
Of course, even when practicing all of the above strategies, stress will always be a part of the caregiving process. Expecting some level of stress and being prepared for it is the best way to avoid letting it get out of hand.
The first step of staying on top of stress is identifying and namings its source. This can be specific behaviors of your patient, specific tasks, people, or environments. The more specific you can be, the better equipped you will be to identify it when it happens again. It can also be helpful to have a clear idea of how the stress affects you. Being aware of sleep problems, irritability, or other common symptoms of stress can help you manage them.
Once you understand the nature of your stress, you can begin to take action to reduce it. This can mean employing some of the strategies listed above, like scheduling breaks or improving your social life. The most effective solutions will be different for everyone, and it’s important to learn what works best for you.
Cortisol levels play a big role in stress. See how you can manage your cortisol in our complete guide.
All of the above solutions are great over the long term, but what about those of us who are facing stress, sleeplessness, and exhaustion right now? If you’re looking for immediate forms of self-care, try one of the following quick fixes. Just don’t forget to take some time to make a more detailed plan later.
The most important point to understand is that self-care needs to be tailored to your specific needs. Some of the strategies outlined above might work for you, while others might be less helpful. The point is finding simple and reliable ways to give yourself the physical, mental, and emotional boost you need to keep caring for those who depend on you.