Maria Shriver

Life Ed: How Caregivers Can Care For Themselves

The work of a caregiver can be emotionally, physically and financially draining, and it's often an around the clock, non-stop effort. Without a self-care plan that ensures their own needs are met, caregivers can often find their work takes a significant, and sometimes untenable, personal toll.

Here to provide expert guidance on how caregivers can care for themselves, is Amy Goyer, the AARP’s Family and Caregiving expert, and an author, consultant and speaker. Goyer’s books include “Juggling Work and Caregiving,” an ebook which will be issued in print the spring. She also has “Taking Care” a caregiving web series and a video blog where she discusses her personal experiences as a caregiver for both of her parents.

Elderly and younger person shake hands
antfoto / Getty Images/iStockphoto

On any given month in the U.S. there are 42 million family caregivers caring for their parents, spouses and partners, adult children, friends and neighbors. Caregivers help with myriad life issues, including legal and financial matters, housekeeping, transportation, shopping, socialization, and mental and physical health. Nearly half are performing intense medical/nursing tasks like medication management and wound care. The average caregiver provides twenty hours of care per week—it’s a part time job, and while the care is valued at more than $450 billion a year, the paycheck is zero. Nearly three-quarters have also worked a paid job while caregiving. It’s a real juggling act and our needs tend to fall to the bottom of the list, leaving us stressed and vulnerable. Common sense tells us we can’t take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves, but doing so often feels like an insurmountable challenge.

Here are some tips to ensure that you, as a caregiver, are also taking care of invaluable you.

1. Get help. No caregiver can do it all alone, but many are very isolated. It’s essential that you connect with others and build your caregiving team. Your team may include family, friends, neighbors, the faith community, local service providers, financial advisors, volunteers and health practitioners. Help may also come in the form of support for you, the caregiver, rather than direct service to those you’re caring for. Getting help with errands, sorting mail, housekeeping, yard work etc. can free you up to take care of yourself. If you’re feeling sad or depressed, professional counseling may help you cope. Ask for and accept help, and you will be a better caregiver.

2. Take a break. Every caregiver needs respite—a break from caregiving tasks. Taking a break can renew your energy and make you a better caregiver with a fresh perspective. Respite may be a few hours, a day or two, a week or longer, but it involves someone else taking over your responsibilities for a period of time so you can take care of yourself. Respite care may come from family or friends, volunteers or paid caregivers. Contact your local area agency on aging to find out if there are organized respite programs available in your area. If your loved one is a veteran, Veterans Affairs may have free or low-cost respite care available to you. When you do get respite, be sure to take the time to nurture yourself—not just to focus on other caregiving tasks.

3. Make time. If you feel you don’t have enough time to take care of yourself, try these things to make time:

  1. Get organized: Disorganization wastes time. Take a bit of time up front to get your paperwork, schedule and caregiving tasks organized and it will free up time in the long run. Technology offers great advantages for today’s caregivers, there are many caregiving apps and websites to help you manage your caregiving team and track your loved ones care, medications, and care plans.
  2. Prioritize: As a caregiver, there will always be too much to do. So you will ease your stress and keep yourself high on your list if you prioritize and re-prioritize often. Be realistic about the three things you can accomplish every day without taking your own self-care off the list.
  3. Set healthy boundaries: Saying no is difficult for many caregivers—the needs of your loved ones can be so great. Remember that as a caregiver you are also vulnerable. Set and communicate reasonable and responsible boundaries around caregiving tasks as well as in other areas of your life.

4. Keep filling your own tank. We don’t expect our cars to run without fuel, but we often expect ourselves to provide care without energy. As caregivers, we must find ways to nurture ourselves so we have the reserves to handle our caregiving tasks. Only you know what works best to release stress and fill your tank, such as journaling, exercising, talking with friends, connecting with other caregivers via an online or in-person caregiver support group, engaging with nature, watching a movie, enjoying music or being creative. You’ll need a list of both quick fixes and larger efforts to keep your tank from reaching empty and hitting caregiver burnout.

5. Maintain your identity. Have you ever felt like you’ve lost yourself in caregiving? It’s vital that you maintain your interests and hobbies, personal relationships and professional identity. You can’t put life on hold while caregiving. This is your life, right here, right now—so even if you need to adapt these things, don’t lose them altogether. They are part of what makes up the wonderful unique you, and they also ease your stress.

6. Watch your health. Have you cancelled one of your own health appointments in order to care for your loved ones? You’re not alone. Many caregivers wind up needing care themselves because they often put loved ones’ needs above their own. But who will care for your loved ones if you are ill? Keep up with your preventive medical appointments, tests, immunizations and medications. If you have a health concern, address it and keep up with your treatment plan. Go back to basics: get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods, exercise and monitor your weight.

7. Monitor your mindset. Caregiving can be an emotional roller-coaster. Fear, guilt, anger, discouragement and worry can be overwhelming. But most caregivers also report feelings of great joy, fulfillment and satisfaction. Keep in mind that you can’t control everything that happens in your caregiving situation, but you can control your mindset, and doing so is a fundamental part of taking care of yourself. Notice and create joy for yourself and your loved ones. It’s not just a nice thing to do; for caregivers it’s a crucial survival skill. Celebrate every accomplishment, holiday or transformation. Understand that despite your best efforts at prevention, changes in your loved ones condition will occur. Instead of feeling defeated at change, make your goal being adaptable and resilient. Ride the waves of change and you’ll feel more successful and effective as a caregiver.

8. Value what you do. Even if you felt like you didn’t have a choice in becoming a caregiver, the truth is you always have a choice. There are many people who have no help. You have chosen to care and you’re making a difference in the lives of those you care for; that knowledge may be the most rewarding and nurturing part of your caregiving experience. Always remember: you are an equally important part of the caregiving equation and you must take care of yourself in order to continue.