Caring for a loved one can be one of the hardest jobs in the world. Caregivers provide essential health support, prepare and serve food, bathe, dress and sometimes toilet the loved ones under their care. They are often responsible for looking after the home, too. What's more, caregiver hours are usually 24/7, leaving them little time to spend on their own health and well-being.
If you are a caregiver and find yourself feeling stressed or burned out, here are seven tips to help you take care of yourself, too.
1. Have a plan
Caregivers perform many different roles, and organization can be the key to meeting the loved one's needs without becoming overwhelmed. If you're at the beginning of your caregiving journey, discuss health care wishes with your loved one and talk to medical professionals about your loved one's specific care needs, which may be mental and emotional as well as physical. However, don't forget to also identify your own support needs and how they can be met.
2. Think about the future
When you're in the middle of providing day-to-day care, it can be hard to think about the future. Try to address potential issues before they become a problem. Discuss finances and Power of Attorney or other legal paperwork, if appropriate, with your loved one. It also helps to make time to talk to relatives and friends about your loved one's potential future requirements, such as when it might be time to transition to a skilled nursing care facility.
3. Care for yourself, too
Although caregivers like to put their loved one's needs first, they aren't superhuman and shouldn't expect to be. Caregiver needs can range from eating properly to having a good laugh. If you're a caregiver, it's important to accept that you can't do everything right all the time and to be prepared to ask for and accept help. As far as is possible, you should eat healthily, exercise and get seven to eight hours sleep per day.
4. Know what you can and cannot do
Feeling confident that you're providing the best care you can is important for your mental health.
"Learn the skills required to care for your person in need and identify the ones you can't perform," says Nick Williams, Chief Operations Officer for PruittHealth. "Some tasks aren't possible for an untrained caregiver. Know when to ask for help or hire professionals."
5. Recognize the signs of stress
Try to identify situations that you find particularly stressful and develop strategies that help you cope. Caregivers often focus exclusively on the loved one in their care, and that can make it easy to overlook the signs of stress and overload.
If you find you have physical problems like recurrent headaches or other aches or pains; constantly feel tired, overwhelmed or sad; or have significant weight gain or weight loss, your caregiving role may be overwhelming you. Other symptoms of stress to note include insomnia or sleeping excessively, irritability and losing interest in activities that were once enjoyable. Substance abuse, including prescription medications, is a serious symptom of stress, and you should seek help as soon as possible if you think you have a problem.1
6. You need a break, too
Respite for the caregiver should be included in every home care plan. Local respite options may include in-home care, adult day programs and emergency respite for caregivers who have a sudden medical need or other urgent, unexpected problem. County and state caregiver support programs may also offer out-of-home adult activities or local adult day care centers.
7. Set goals for yourself, too
Setting personal goals is a helpful strategy for managing your role as a caregiver. Focus on what's most important to you, whether that's improving your physical health, connecting with other caregivers or another personal change you'd like to make. Make a list of small steps you can take to achieve your goal and begin to take them. Caregivers can often feel lonely and isolated and may have difficulty asking for help or admitting that they are struggling to cope.
"Relatives, friends, local community services and private health care providers can all help lift the weight from caregiver shoulders, and let them know they aren't alone," says Williams for PruittHealth. "If you're a caregiver, look after yourself, too, and don't hesitate to reach out and discover what's out there for you."